Ed Shyloski ’66 and a “small but mighty” Connecticut VFW chapter help veterans in need
By Jane Dunbar
The Norwich Record | Fall 2019
You can’t grab a beer at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1467 in Old Lyme, Connecticut. You can’t join a round of poker, either. You can’t even get inside the building. There isn’t a building. But if you’re a veteran in need, you know exactly where to find members like Ed Shyloski ’66. Just pick up the phone, and the 73-year-old Vietnam veteran and former post commander will be there, ready to help.
The post’s motto is “No building, no bar, just good works.” Shyloski helped polish the credo, and it explains why the Old Lyme post thrives, despite waning national membership for the VFW. Membership in the venerable veterans’ organization has declined from 2.1 million in 1995 to just half that today.
To understand why VFW Post 1467 is booming, look no further than Shyloski. Eight years ago, the retired nuclear power executive and his wife, Nancy moved to Old Lyme. Eager to connect with his new community, Shyloski says he tried the Knights of Columbus. But playing cards in a bar held no appeal.
“Veterans don’t ask for help unless they truly need it.”
— Ed Shyloski ’66
Seeking more purposeful engagement, he discovered VFW Post 1467 and was struck by its unconventional structure. The chapter formed in 1993 without a brick-and-mortar home. Members of the self-described “small but mighty” post met monthly in an Old Lyme senior center. Free from the financial burdens and legal liabilities of a canteen (VFW-speak for “bar”), members focused instead on ways to help local veterans, funding their efforts with donations collected via community-based events and outreach.
Shyloski signed up and seeing an opportunity to leverage the chapter’s unique approach, he successfully lobbied post members to tweak their motto. The new credo's resonance helped spark membership growth that attracts veterans from across the state.
The change also captured the attention of an anonymous benefactor, who in 2014 donated $10,000 to seed the post’s flagship Vets-in-Need program. The initiative provides small grants for car repairs, gasoline money, utility bills, handicap adaptations, and even school lunch payments for veterans’ children.
Vets-in-Need, with support from a growing circle of individual donors and charitable partners, has provided close to $30,000 in emergency assistance to more than 60 individuals to date.
“Every social worker in the state knows who we are,” Shyloski says.
So, too, do veterans themselves. Post trustees publish their contact info in the local newspaper, inviting vets to call them at home or email if they need help.
The threshold to receive help is set intentionally low, Shyloski explains. Because grants rarely exceed a few thousand dollars at most, “we take things at face value,” he says. “Veterans don’t ask for help unless they truly need it.”
Veterans simply need to show their DD Form 214 — the certificate of release or discharge from active duty. It only takes two of the post’s three trustees to approve the veteran’s request for assistance for help to follow.
Empowering people to help themselves
Trustees do favor requests that empower applicants to better help themselves going forward. For example, the post recently partnered with the nonprofit Work Vessels for Vets to provide a quality used car — and reliable work transportation — for a young Navy veteran who previously struggled to survive on $500 a month.
“It’s people like you who keep us war vets going,” the single mom wrote in an email. “I would love to meet you in person, tears and all.”
The VFW, founded in 1899, has long served as a voice for military members and their families. However, Shyloski says the perception of the VFW today is often associated with the bars that many chapters operate to fund their philanthropic endeavors.
“Right or wrong, the canteen model has cast the VFW in a particular light — one that can blind potential members to the bigger picture,” he says. “When you want to serve others, but perceive your local post as a place where aging veterans indulge in cheap beer, you probably won’t get involved. You can’t do good works from a barstool.”
The Old Lyme VFW post is atypical— for now. Shyloski hopes some of its lessons can be shared more broadly with the national organization, one whose mission and members he strongly supports. (He currently serves as national aide-de-camp for the VFW’s commander in chief.)
“We absolutely believe that our success can be a model for declining posts that are determined to survive,” Shyloski says. “When you build a purposeful mission, the members and donors will come.”
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