On a typical front porch in North Philadelphia, a red, blue and white awning gives shade to two signs on the corner of 33rd and Diamond streets. One sign advertises water ice in a bright, fruit-flecked rainbow of cherry, lemon and blueberry Italian ice. The other sign says simply: “Capt. Robert Tresville VFW Post 6700. Join the Veterans Who Fought For Our Country.”
Tresville doesn’t live here—he was never found in combat. But 58 African-American veterans do live here, in a sense. This is their Veterans of Foreign Wars post: VFW Post 6700.
“There are World War II veterans here—vets from Vietnam, the Gulf War, from Korea. Hey, one of us may have served with your grandfather,” Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Davis of the U.S. Army said. He stared at us with hollow, focused eyes, with pinned back shoulders masked by sadness. “All you need is one day of combat,” Davis explained. There are 300 members on the books in the oldest African-American Organization. “There are fewer active members now because many of them have died over the years,” Davis said with a sigh.
“Being in Iraq after 27 years in service, I am always in active duty. I never thought I would be a veteran. I’m still learning as I go. Personally, there is nothing good to say about going over there,” Davis said. “I lost a lot of friends.
“I was on a mission to help Lithuanians become part of NATO in 2001,” explained Davis. His U.S. troop first battled combat training in Hoensfeld, Germany, in December 1981. After intensive training, the troop made its way into Eastern Europe and through the second expansion to the Baltic States.
Now 45, he has spent over a year home in Germantown, since March 2008 from his deployment in Iraq. He didn’t want new veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan to have no place to go. “I knew this post was the best of the best and we go out and help all the veterans, go to hospitals, hold support groups, help with the community and after-school programs, and we do it all ourselves,” he said.
Sergeant Davis has become the new commander for VFW Post 6700. Sgt. Charles Jowers of the 82nd Airborne Division, the senior vice commander in the VFW and a member for 40 years, explained that the soldiers voted Davis into office. “He defended our country and is still wounded. He’s continuing to do good things for our community, like visit the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center,” said Jowers.
That medical center is located on 38th Street and Woodland Avenue at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center. “He spends time with the veterans,” said Jowers, taking a deep breath as he paused for a moment. “The veterans outpatient themselves; some of them spend a lot of time there.”
The VFW was chartered in 1958 in the basement of the Zion Baptist Church founded by Rev. Leon Sullivan. “Even in the ’50s and ’60s we were helping the community,” Davis said.
Today, the VFW is more of an outreach program.“We have a lot of great ideas, but we don’t always know where to start. We are limited to what we can do for the community. There are lots of programs but not enough funding,” said Sgt. John Baxton, a post member who served in Iraq.
The post members have a new, vital role. They want more funding to help Strawberry Mansion. Baxton said, “We know there are grants out there, but we also have to maintain our post.” The veterans have to report distributions from pensions, annuities, IRAs, insurance contracts, profit-sharing plans and retirement plans. “We have to report everything. Everything we spend here we have to report: paper towels, bars of soap, toilet paper –but sometimes we can’t always afford it,” Baxton said.
The motivation for helping out is an easy one. “This community needs to be a safe haven for the youth,” Davis said. There was a non-profit Memorial Day event during which the post offered free water ice. It was a way for the veterans to give back to their community. On other days, the water ice is 50 cents for a medium size and $1 for a large portion. It’s a small price to pay for a large contribution to Strawberry Mansion. “The money helps us pay our bills and goes back into the community,” said Davis. The VFW wouldn’t have it any other way.