Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Don Zero estimated the West Hawaii veteran population at between 150-170 veterans. In actuality, Zero estimated the VFW membership in West Hawaii at between 150-170 veterans. The population of veterans in West Hawaii numbers in the thousands. It is the policy of West Hawaii Today to promptly correct any incorrect or misleading information as soon as it is brought to the attention of the paper.
KAILUA-KONA — “No one does more for veterans.”
That’s the motto of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, commonly referred to as the VFW, and it’s a sentiment highly valued among those who make it a point to cultivate Kailua-Kona’s tightly knit veteran community.
“Veterans have one thing in common, and that’s basically each other,” said Don Zero, a retired U.S. Army captain who served in the Vietnam War.
He estimated the West Hawaii VFW membership to be between 150-170.
“But like most organizations, there’s always a core that does things,” Don explained.
A pillar of that core group, former Navy Lt. John Grogan, who also served in Vietnam, is pulling up stakes and heading back to the mainland — Alabama specifically — to be closer to his 10 grandchildren.
He said outside family, the bonds with his brothers in arms are the ties he’ll miss most after 14 years on Hawaii Island.
To qualify as a member of the VFW, one must be a combat veteran. Even as one of them, Grogan said he feels humbled to be connected to men he views as having offered a greater sacrifice than he.
“There is a camaraderie of people who have the shared experience, the band of brothers, if you will. There is that feeling,” he explained. “But I had a different experience in Vietnam than many of my fellow VFW members.”
“My hat’s off to them,” Grogan continued. “We’ve got guys who were on helicopter gunship crews, and people that’ve been out in the rice paddies and that. I had a cushy experience compared to those guys. I’m in awe of them, and I really appreciate the opportunity to be around them, knowing I haven’t earned that honor in my own view.”
For many combat veterans, post traumatic stress disorder or severe injuries can lead to a host of problems that make re-assimilation into civilian life a challenge. Some end up with substance abuse problems. Others land on the street.
Don said every day the VFW is open, at least one or two homeless veterans wander in looking for help from the service officer.
Throughout much of Hawaii, that’s not even an option, he explained, as Kona’s Lance Cpl. Christopher Camero Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 12122 is one of only two “brick and mortar” VFW locations across the islands.
Guy Zero, Don’s son and a resident of Florida, retired as a U.S. Army colonel four years ago following a 26-year stint in the military.
He explained that context can be applied to a majority of veterans through the concept of purpose. Many who struggle after service have difficulty finding their purpose. Several others find purpose in helping those on the sometimes difficult hunt for their own.
“Being in the military for me was working as a team for a greater purpose to accomplish a mission. It’s a culture of service beyond yourself,” Guy said. “When you transition from active duty … it’s not always easy for vets to do that because all of the sudden, you have to find a different cause in life.”
Grogan spent much of his time in Hawaii making veterans organizations in Kona and those who rely on them his cause. He was for a year Commander of VFW Post 12122, during which it was designated an All-American Post.
Such a designation relies on recruiting success and community programs, among other qualifications.
Grogan also spent six years as President of the West Hawaii Veterans Cemetery Development and Expansion Association between 2007-2013. During that time, the nonprofit organization secured $3 million worth of expansion.
The cemetery will host its annual Veterans Day Program today beginning at 11 a.m., which will feature the recognition of Gold Star and Blue Star families, as well as an address from keynote speaker Angel Pilago, a Vietnam War veteran and both a Silver Star and two-time Bronze Star awardee.
Grogan laughed that he was elected to his first term as president of the association because he missed a meeting and nobody else wanted the job. But as he became more involved, he became more passionate and interested.
“I was never the most important person,” Grogan said of the accomplishments achieved during his tenure. “We have a number of other veterans that contributed in large measure to the success our cemetery has had.”
He mentioned Gaylene Hopson, a volunteer with the USO and VFW Auxiliary and a family member of several veterans, as a “mover and a shaker” who does as much as anyone in Kona to help veterans find housing and food.
Hopson has also been a vocal leader as part of a push from the public, both military-affiliated and otherwise, for better veterans services from the VA on Hawaii Island and across the state.
Veterans still wait longer in Hawaii for medical treatment than anywhere else in the nation, she explained.
“We would never leave (veterans) behind on the battlefield, so when they come home we need to do more than just say ‘Thank you for your service,’” she said. “We are losing 21 veterans/one active duty (service person) a day to suicide. This is egregious. Coming home is the new battlefield. We can and we need to do more. Much more.”
Don said there’s been a swell of public support from people like Hopson over the years as public sentiment has shifted on veterans since the Vietnam War.
Still, Don explained, VA services on Hawaii Island could be significantly better. He personally waited three months for a new pair of glasses despite already having his prescription. He also had a long wait for a hearing aid test, one of the few medical services for which Hawaii Island veterans don’t have to travel to Oahu.
As they wait for improvements within the VA and for a planned West Hawaii veterans center with a price tag ballparked around $12.5 million, veterans in Kailua-Kona will do what they’ve always done — their best to take care of one another.
After all, no one does more for veterans than veterans themselves. For people like Grogan and the Zeros, service is simply what they know.
“It’s an ethos most in the military have,” Guy said.