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Vets active during holidays, beyond

Ken Kraft knows what it means to be a combat veteran.

Kraft, the post commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Three Rivers Post #1324 in Oregon City, suffered the loss of both knees in a mortar attack in Iraq in 2005. He had 24 surgeries in two years and had to learn how to walk and talk all over again.

So when Kraft tells other wounded veterans “it’s not what you can’t do, it’s what you can do,” he knows what he’s talking about.

by: PHOTO BY ELLEN SPITALERI - VFW Post #1324 Commander Ken Kraft displays the All-American Post certificate given to the Oregon City-based chapter in 2012.And right now, Kraft is focusing his energies on the VFW post in Oregon City. Last year all the hard work he and his fellow members put in paid off, when Post #1324 was awarded an All-American Post for the first time in its history.

by: PHOTO BY ELLEN SPITALERI - VFW Post #1324 Commander Ken Kraft packs a duffel bag full of supplies to give to homeless vets, just one of the services offered by his organization.Post #1324 was given its Congressional charter in 1925, but the national All-American designation for 2012-13 was its first award of this kind.

“The recognition is for the best of the best. It means we met the membership requirements, and we have life in the post,” Kraft said, noting that the local organization has about 380 members, most hailing from Oregon City, West Linn, Gladstone, Clackamas, Lake Oswego and Happy Valley. There are about 85,000 posts nationwide, with about 2 million members.

Kraft said he is expecting to be recognized as an All-American post again in 2014, adding that the VFW “is the nation’s oldest and largest combat veterans service organization, and it endures through every generation of living combat veterans.”

Season of giving is all year

One of the reasons the Oregon City-based nonprofit organization won the award is for the numerous ways VFW members serve the community. The holiday season is a busy time of the year for members; they just hosted their annual Christmas party on Dec. 15, feeding around 150 people and handing out toys and gifts to children.

Every Friday night, post members cook a dinner and welcome anyone from the community to attend. The steak dinner on Dec. 20, starts at 5 p.m., costs $10, and proceeds will help to keep the building open.

Beginning in January, members will serve a pancake breakfast starting at 8 a.m. every Sunday. Anyone is welcome, Kraft said.

Other activities this time of the year include working with units at Camp Withycombe in Clackamas, giving free Christmas trees to vets, and providing free wood to veterans and their families. Members also mail care packages to military personnel stationed overseas, Kraft said.

This year the post also adopted a National Guard unit, HHS 41st IBCT, and VFW members will make sure guard members and their families have everything they need for Christmas.

“For those who deploy, come back or are still serving, we want them to know we understand what they are doing. We want to lend a helping hand,” Kraft said.

Donations help many vets, others

Many organizations take a breather after the holiday season, but not so the VFW.

“We are here to take care of military personnel and their families when they deploy, and when they return,” Kraft said.

For more than 75 years, the VFW’s Buddy Poppy program has raised millions of dollars nationwide in support of veterans and their dependents. The poppies are assembled by disabled veterans, who are paid for their efforts.

Last year, the Oregon City-based post raised more than $26,000 from poppy donations, and every penny of that money went back into the community, Kraft said.

VFW Post #1324 supports more than 14 organizations with proceeds from donations, among them are the Voice of Democracy scholarship program for high school students, the Clackamas Community College Veterans Center, the Oregon Veterans Home and the Oregon City High School Junior ROTC program.

Local VFW members also put together homeless kits for veterans who are living outdoors. These consist of sturdy duffel bags filled with new sleeping bags, tarps, socks, hygiene items, gloves and hats. The kits are delivered to other VFW posts, where many members know where to find and support homeless vets, Kraft said.

Members also work with public safety organizations, including local firefighters, police departments and paramedics in “Americanism” activities, like speaking on Pearl Harbor Day and Veterans Day and helping with flag-retirement care.

“We also visit retirement homes and hospices to support vets, and we make regular visits to the Portland VA Medical Center,” Kraft said.

Nationally, the VFW is a “very active lobby for vets,” he said, adding that the VFW is promoting legislation for the new GI Bill. Kraft will go to Washington, D.C., in March to talk to senators and representatives about issues of interest to veterans.

Building needs work

Although members are active in raising money, they are fighting a losing battle trying to rehabilitate an old building by themselves, Kraft said.

The VFW hall, a modified Quonset hut-like structure, is located atop a bluff near the Museum of the Oregon Territory. It was dedicated in 1949.

“We’ve been saving for years to do a remodel, and this year we are adding a commercial dishwasher to our kitchen. But we need the community to help with the renovation of the building,” Kraft said.

He pointed out that the VFW’s mission is to help the community, and that the organization is “here to be an asset” to Oregon City.

The building’s parking lot is part of a park and walking trail, so it is important that the organization provides a “stable, safe place for our community,” which includes elderly and disabled veterans.

Monetary contributions to the building fund would be welcome, as would volunteers who would like to help with the renovations. People also are encouraged to contribute to the homeless kits, by donating money or new items, Kraft said.

Contact VFW Three Rivers Post #1324 located at 104 Tumwater Road, in Oregon City, by calling 503-655-6969; email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ; or visit the Facebook page at threerivers

VFWpost1324.

Clackamas County Veterans Service Office helps vets, dependents

The Clackamas County Veterans Service Office works to ensure that Clackamas County veterans and their families receive all state and federal benefits available to them by providing expert and dedicated representation that is free of charge.

“We are the first source for VA benefits and entitlements for veterans and family members. We help them navigate through the VA system, because it can be so complex,” said Gina Thomas, Clackamas County Veterans Service officer.

“We can help them find their federal and state benefits for health care, home loans, education and burial services. We take the stress off them, so they will not be overwhelmed,” she said.

“We have four full-time people in the office, so whenever vets call with questions, we can get right back to them. We want to make sure the veterans in Clackamas County get the benefits they deserve,” said Erika Silver, Thomas’ supervisor and the county human services manager.

Thomas is a combat veteran and member of the VFW Three Rivers Post #1324. She retired from the U.S. Army after 25 years, and was deployed to Kuwait from 2007 to 2008.

What she likes best about the local chapter of the VFW is the “tight camaraderie” and the organization’s active involvement in the community and schools and willingness to help all generations of vets, from elders to current military personnel and their families.

“We military folks speak our own language, so we are a great support for each other,” Thomas said.

Helping vets

What: Clackamas County Veterans Service Office

Where: 1810 Red Soils Court, Oregon City

Contact: call 503-650-5631; email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Office hours: 8 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday

Website: Visit clackamas.us/socialservices/veterans.html for more information and a full list of services offered.