Spring brings new leadership For vets’ groups

New leaders of Villages veteran groups, Dennis Storey, left, Bill Ward, Joan Suelter, and Ben Vasquez have big plans for their groups’ futures.

Spring is a time of change and renewal, and prominent local veterans’ groups are keeping with the season. Groups such as The American Legion Post 347, Disabled American Veterans, Band of Brothers and the Marine Corps League are now under new leadership.  Here’s a look at those new leaders and what they envision for their organizations moving forward.

American Legion Post 347 

Joan Suelter  takes over as the new commander of American Legion Post 347 in Lady Lake on July 1. She was elected in May  to lead Post 347, which, with almost 7,000  members, is the largest Legion post in the world.

Suelter, of the Village of Gilchrist, spent three years  in the U.S. Navy in the 1960s  working in communications. She has been a Legion member for the last seven years. She joined initially to be part of the Honor Guard, and has since held a few posts, including most recently first vice commander, the No. 2 position.

Suelter praised the work of outgoing Commander Al Varrone,  especially in guiding the organization during the pandemic.

“Al’s done such a good job turning the ship around. We’re on a good, even keel, and I just want to maintain it,”

Suelter said.

More members, especially older ones, are starting to come back, especially with the spread of vaccinations. Accordingly, one of her primary goals is to rekindle the committee work that suffered during the pandemic in support of American Legion’s “4 Pillars” program:  Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation; National Security; Americanism; and Children and Youth.

Suelter said, as examples, she’d like to do more blood drives and revive programs for youth. One priority is to reconnect with the Army Junior ROTC cadets at Lake Weir High School.

“I want to focus on our programs, but I just want to step it up a little bit,” said Suelter.

Disabled American Veterans Chapter 150 

Dennis Storey had served as acting commander of the Orange Blossom Hills Chapter 150  of the Disabled American Veterans  for about six months before being formally installed as the 1,400-member  chapter’s leader in May.

Storey, of the Village of Hadley, served 21 years in the Army,   spending much of his career in special operations before retiring in the late 1990s.  Storey said he had been involved with the Legion but was drawn to the DAV six  years ago after reading about its mission. He now works as the DAV service officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs  clinic in The Villages.

Storey said one of his top goals is to recruit and train two additional volunteer service officers to help process claims. Right now, that’s done by Storey and another officer, and if they are not available, the office is closed.

“We want to have somebody in the office all the time,” he said. “We don’t want to hold vets off, especially those who need help right now.”

Boosting fundraising is another key mission for Storey. That began with a pancake breakfast over the weekend. But he seeks to organize a golf outing later this year, and kickstart the DAV’s “Forget Me Not”  campaign, in which the group would set up a table outside a retailer and offer the little blue flowers in exchange for donations.

The fundraising is critical, Storey said, because it aids the DAV in its efforts to help veterans in need. Financially strapped vets can receive up to a one-time $250  payment to help with things like rent or car repairs.

The fundraising also supports a college scholarship program for children of veterans and VA employees. Meanwhile, the DAV continues to save money to purchase a replacement van to run local vets to the VA hospital in Gainesville each day.

“We’ve got a fairly busy agenda, and we’re hoping to get some of it through,” said Storey.

Band of Brothers

Ben Vasquez had served as vice president of the Band of Brothers before being recently elevated to the presidency.

Vasquez, of the Village of Pine Hills, served in the U.S. Army in the 1970s,  first as a military policeman and then as a Green Beret for more than four years.

Vasquez said he was familiar with the Band during seasonal visits to The Villages, but became a member and more involved with the group after moving to the community full-time two  years ago.

“It was just the camaraderie of being around the other military guys — and not just the Army,” he said. “It was a good fit for me.”

Vasquez laid out a two-part plan for the 581-member  group during his time as president.

One priority is to expand membership by appealing to veterans on the south end of The Villages.

The Band meets every Tuesday afternoon at the City Fire restaurant in Lake Sumter Landing. Vasquez said next month he wants to hold a meeting at the City Fire in Brownwood.

“The Villages is so huge, and moving so far south. Nobody’s going to drive a golf cart from (the Village of) Fenney to Lake Sumter Landing. I want to capture those vets down there,” said Vasquez.

He envisions the southern initiative to start slow. But, he said, the goal would be to eventually conduct two meetings a week, one at each restaurant.

“It’s a work in progress, but the whole thing is to get as many vets as possible involved,” said Vasquez.

The social aspect of the Band is a significant aspect of the group’s identity. But Vasquez said he wants to augment that with more of traditional functions of its nonprofit charter.

The Band is well known for aiding veterans in need. But Vasquez said he’d like to expand that with more help for other veterans’ groups, as well as getting involved with charities such as the food pantry in Wildwood, and youth groups. On the latter, Vasquez said he intends to reach out to deputies who work with youth in all three counties to assess the issues. “Those guys know where the need is,” he said.

The Col. Phillip C. DeLong Detachment 1267 of the Marine Corps League

Bill Ward  had been a member of the Col. Phillip C. DeLong Detachment 1267 of the Marine Corps League since shortly after moving to The Villages in 2016.  Now, he’s the new commandant of the group, which has around 200 members.

Ward, of the Village of Hillsborough, who had been a platoon leader and company commander during his four  years in the Marines in the late 1960s and early ’70s, said he had been a longtime member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars when he lived in the Chicago  area. But the VFW post nearest The Villages was too far away, he said, so he jumped at the chance to be back among fellow Marines once learning about Detachment 1267.

Other members suggested he take over for former Commandant Nathan Pratt,  who had led the group for the past three  years.

“I just can’t say no,” Ward said. “We have a great organization, and along with Villagers for Veterans, nobody does as much as we do.”

Ward said his main goal is to keep it that way.

He noted that Detachment 1267, through Toys for Tots, gathers tens of thousands of toys each Christmas for more than 15,000  children.

The group also supports college-bound high school seniors with scholarships through its night-golf outings, Ward added. And it raises money for area schools, other veterans’ groups, community organizations and local law enforcement agencies through donations to its “RED shirt” campaign, in which people are asked for contributions for T-shirts that call attention to military personnel serving overseas.

Ward added that he has some ideas to bolster fundraising, but declined to share them until he has a chance to present them to the detachment’s members.

Additionally, Ward said, he wants to keep the group’s membership growing at its current rate of about

30  newcomers a year, and to get more of the rank and file involved in the detachment’s work.

“My plan is to continue all these great programs,” said Ward. “The people in

The Villages are so generous and so patriotic, it makes it easy. If it’s for vets they step up, and if it’s for kids, they really step up.”

Staff Writer Bill Thompson can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5228, or william.thompson@thevillagesmedia.com.