Post 1973 at Our Lady of Fatima assists vets in a variety of projects, including food drives and flag-retirement ceremonies
By Bill Brewer
Deacon Ken Long spends each Tuesday giving Communion to a small group of men he barely knows but shares much in common.
He’s a veteran helping other Catholic veterans remain strong in their faith.
The retired military men who regularly meet with Deacon Long reside at the Ben Atchley State Veterans Home in Knoxville, a nursing home caring for veterans from across East Tennessee.
Deacon Long is just one of several Diocese of Knoxville vets involved in Catholic War Veterans of the United States of America Post 1973 at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Alcoa. The post was established in October 2015 at the request of parish pastor Father Bill McKenzie.
And in the two-and-a-half years since forming, the post finds itself assisting veterans in ways it never anticipated.
“This is veterans helping veterans,” Deacon Long said as he described an array of projects he and fellow post veterans have taken on. “My vision is that we will help veterans in anything we can do.”
The term “anything” proved prophetic.
Since its inception, projects have included the purchase and placement of a veteran’s memorial stone at Our Lady of Fatima, food drives for the Blount County veterans food pantry, flag-retirement ceremonies on the weekend of Flag Day each June, and maintaining outside Stations of the Cross at Our Lady of Fatima.
But they also have involved more personal missions that have made lasting impacts on individual veterans’ lives.
When the gravel driveway of a priest’s residence on a mountainside kept washing out, the Catholic War Veterans post raised funds to help provide a paved drive for the priest, who is a veteran. The post also funded a factory-installed GPS system in the vehicle of another priest and veteran who serves several parishes in the diocese and their parishioners. And Post 1973 has assisted a disabled veteran in putting up a fence on his farm.
They’ve even reached out to a veteran in need by retrieving and delivering firewood to heat his residence during the winter.
“Well, his driveway is in disrepair, too, and we’ve arranged to assist him in getting his driveway repaired,” said Our Lady of Fatima veteran Baron Johnson. “There are veterans in other counties who probably need help and we just don’t know about it.”
The organization’s largest effort to date is a two-year, $10,000 project to build and install a handicap-accessible covered glider for veterans who are at the Ben Atchley State Veteran’s Home. The swing can accommodate a wheelchair and three others.
Terry Pate, director of activity at Ben Atchley, said the new glider has been a godsend for the residents there. He explained that organizations often ask Ben Atchley how they can assist the veterans home and its residents. Ben Atchley had been interested in providing a swing for its residents, including those who require a wheelchair, and appealed to those organizations for assistance.
“Post 1973 is the only organization we had to approach us to get that done. It was a huge accomplishment for us to get that swing done,” Mr. Pate said.
Mr. Pate described how the glider is comforting to Ben Atchley residents, often rekindling fond memories.
“The glider is like rocking on the front porch. It brings back memories of home for our residents and their family members. A number of families have commented to us how nice that is,” Mr. Pate said, mentioning one resident in particular who had cognitive issues but found comfort in the swing. “That swing was able to help him remember some good times. It’s like that swing keeps on giving.”
Mr. Pate also spoke highly of Deacon Long’s weekly work with the veterans, especially in ministering to the Catholic veterans.
“Deacon Long has been assisting our residents for quite a while. He is a true blessing to our residents. I think he really gives a purpose for life. He is a wonderful person,” said Mr. Pate, who hopes the Our Lady of Fatima veterans maintain their ministry. “We would love to have them continue their outreach at Ben Atchley.”
Our Lady of Fatima is the first – and so far the only – parish in the Diocese of Knoxville to have a Catholic War Veterans of the United States of America post. It also was the first post in Tennessee. Eleven veterans who attend Our Lady of Fatima Church were sworn in as officers of Post 1973 in October 2015. Deacon Long served as the post’s first commander.
The Blount County post originated when a visitor to Our Lady of Fatima asked Father McKenzie if the parish had a Catholic War Veterans of the USA chapter and handed the priest a brochure.
After some research, Deacon Long discovered there wasn’t a single post in five central southern states at that time. The Diocese of Knoxville post appeared to be a good – and needed – fit because it can provide assistance to Veterans Administration facilities across the diocese such as the Mountain Home VA hospital in Johnson City and VA clinics and centers in Chattanooga, the Tri-Cities, Morristown, Athens, Harriman, LaFollette, Rogersville, Sevierville, and Knoxville, as well as the Tennessee State Veterans’ Home in Knoxville.
In describing how the OLOF veterans helped a homeless veteran reach the VA facility in Johnson City, Mr. Johnson said Post 1973’s role isn’t as an auxiliary VA.
“We’re more like a VFW (Veterans of Foreign War) or an American Legion post,” he said.
Fellow post member Mike Peterson added, “We don’t sit around and drink beer and tell stories. We are here to serve veterans who need help.”
Deacon Long, Mr. Peterson, and Mr. Johnson are Vietnam War veterans. Deacon Long served in the Navy from 1967-1971, Mr. Peterson served in the Army from 1967-1969, and Mr. Johnson served in the Army from 1966-1969.
The post has five fundraisers a year to pay for expenses. Those projects are Hearts for Heroes, where children design Valentine’s Day cards that are given to veterans through the aid of sponsors; twice-yearly poppy sales at participating Walmart stores; a barbecue dinner; an Oktoberfest dinner; and online sales of Nativity trees.
While the post requires its members to be honorably discharged from the military as well as be Catholic men and women in good standing with the Church, assistance from the post is provided to any U.S. veteran, regardless of faith or affiliations.
“We’re here to help. We don’t ask them what their religion is,” Deacon Long said. “We are kind of like Catholic Charities in that most of the people we help are not Catholic. They’re very appreciative of what we do.”
“After all, this is veterans helping veterans,” Mr. Peterson added.
Along with assisting veterans, the OLOF members want to continue growing the post, which has added five members since September. When formed in 2015, the post began with 20 members. It now is up to 36 members.
Any honorably discharged Catholic veteran in the diocese can be a member of Post 1973, which meets on the first and third Tuesdays of each month at Our Lady of Fatima. The post’s current commander is Angela Feltz.
There has been discussion of additional Catholic War Veterans posts in the diocese, but the members agree they would like to see Post 1973 grow before another post is considered. Mr. Johnson suggested that a post reach 75 to 100 members before another one is added. Deacon Long hopes to see more posts established in the diocese.
In the meantime, they would like to see an auxiliary group to the existing post that would assist it in its mission. Post 1973 auxiliaries can be established at any parish, and their members aren’t required to be veterans as long as they are closely related to a veteran.
“We don’t want to keep the status quo. If you stand still you aren’t growing,” Deacon Long said.