VFW national commander visits Sanford

May. 22, 2014 @ 05:01 AM

The commander-in-chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, William “Bill” Thien, came to Sanford Wednesday, meeting local veterans and greeting an old friend, Billy Ray Cameron.

Cameron is a former commander of Sanford’s VFW Post 5631 on Webb Street. He’s also one of just two North Carolinians to have held the national commander position that Thien now holds — Cameron led the group back in the ‘80s. Cameron has suffered a stroke and doesn’t speak much now, but he was smiling and laughing Wednesday afternoon when Thien came and told stories about him and also presented Cameron with his personal commander’s medallion.

Both men are Vietnam veterans, Thien in the Navy and Cameron in the Marines. Thien said he remembers a time when he had first joined the VFW, and Cameron came to his post.

“Billy told us there was a future commander in the room, and we wondered what he was taking,” Thien said, getting a good chuckle from Cameron and the other two dozen local veterans gathered at the local VFW.

“We were aware of the four walls around us, but we didn’t know anything about what was happening at the district, state or national level.”

But Cameron was right, and Thien is now not only aware of the national activities — he leads them. And he said that while things have come a long way for veterans since when he and thousands of others were returning from Vietnam, life could still be better for veterans.

He said that nowadays, “America gets it. We understand. You got to separate the war from the warrior,” and support veterans even if you disagree with the wars they fought.

But while public opinion has come a long way since the ‘70s, he said, public policy — especially the Veterans Health Administration, which has been much maligned in recent months — still must catch up.

“There’s a lot of things going on in the VA system, and the VFW is on top of it,” Thien said. “I just did an unannounced visit of a VA hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, and when they saw my badge they were like, ‘Why are you here?’”

He said their fear was understandable, given the recent VA hospitals scandal.

“We’re calling for people to be fired, and even criminal charges, if it turns out people died because of their actions,” he said.

Members of the local Stanley McLeod VFW Post, from World War II vets to one active duty soldier, said they were glad to have the group’s national leader here in Sanford — again.

“We’ve had quite a few come over the years,” said Emory “Squib” Wilkie, a World War II and Korea veteran. “They like central Carolina.”

In addition to talking politics and the VA system, Thien also made the call for increased membership. He said this was the 89th post he had visited in the last four months, and that everywhere he has gone, he tells people to recruit more members. Because the more visible and active the group is, he said, the more it can grab the attention of Congress or other important decision-makers.

The crowd at Wednesday’s meeting was mainly older, although not entirely. Mike Hampton, for instance, is a Desert Storm veteran who said he never would have joined if someone hadn’t actively recruited him — but that he now loves the camaraderie.

“My dad’s a Vietnam veteran and got me to join,” Hampton said. “He told me all about, what the group did ... and I liked it.”