June 2000/July 2000
Chapter 77: Committed, Strong, And Active
By Jim Doyle
It began simply enough. In 1984 a member of Chapter 77 in Buffalo, New
York, approached the chapter and spoke about a veteran who needed help. He
had lost his job, had no money, and had an infant at home. He was
The chapter passed the hat and collected $46. The member went out and
purchased groceries with the money and delivered them to the family. The
reception he received was heartfelt and genuine.
He went back and reported to the members of the chapter, and they
decided to begin a monthly 50/50 drawing to establish a fund to help
veterans in need. Thus began the Chapter 77 Food Pantry that has helped
countless veterans and their families in the last 16 years.
"Over the years we have helped veterans of all wars and
active-duty families in need," said Frank Vollmer, founding president
of the chapter. "We've helped veterans and families from World War II
all the way through Kosovo."
In a community with a population hovering around 500,000, VVA Chapter
77 is always ready, willing, and able to help out. Much of the success of
the Food Pantry program is due to the efforts of Paul Rudnicki.
Since 1986 he has sponsored an annual Welcome Back Ball at the local
fire hall. The proceeds go directly to the chapter's pantry project. It is
estimated that in the last 14 years the parties have raised over $100,000
for the pantry.
At first, Rudnicki's friends in the legal profession never thought he
could get a group of Vietnam veterans together in one place long enough to
raise any money. "I bet them a dollar a head they were wrong,"
Vollmer added that when the challenge came, the chapter went out and
recruited, cajoled, and persuaded veterans to show up for the event.
Prizes were donated by local merchants and others for a silent auction.
"Eighty people showed up that first year," he says. "It
raised $1,800 for the pantry."
Initially, the chapter also received donations from other VSOs in town.
"The program is unrestricted," Vollmer says. "If you're a
vet or a family member and need some assistance, we'll be there."
In 1999, the Welcome Home Ball grossed $15,400. After expenses, the
pantry received $14,900. It is now an annual project of Veterans
Assistance Local Ongoing Recognition (VALOR), established by Rudnicki and
six friends. He is proud that the group keeps expenses low.
"The community responds when you show them that over 96 cents of
every dollar goes to the program," Rudnicki says. "A lot of our
money comes from people who don't attend the party."
That the ball is more than a culinary experience is evidenced by the
ticket for the 15th annual event scheduled for November 20:
"Fabulous Midnight Buffet--Spam, Spam, & More Spam." The
same ticket advertises "Free Rooftop Parking for First Ten
"We try not to take ourselves too seriously," said Rudnicki,
who saw service in Vietnam with the Judge Advocate General Corps from Camp
Holloway in the Central Highlands to Can Tho in the Delta.
Admission is $25 per couple and a can of food. Some people bring boxes
and bags of canned goods to help fill the shelves of the pantry.
Occasionally, a donor will remark, "You helped me out, and I never
The chapter is more than just the Food Pantry. It is people who have
more in common than the Vietnam War or living on the banks of the Niagara
River. They share a sense of community.
"It's a great bunch of people," Al Schreier, past chapter
president, said. "It's a nice bunch to hang out with."
Mary Lee Sulkowski, team leader at the Buffalo Vet Center, agrees.
"Chapter 77 has always made a point of welcoming women veterans into
their ranks," she said. "When I was state coordinator for the
Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project, the chapter raised close to $2,000 for
the memorial." Sulkowski served aboard the USS Repose in I
Corps as a surgical nurse during the Vietnam War.
On the last Tuesday of each February, "Kids Day," chapter
members volunteer to sell special editions of the Buffalo News to
raise money for children. "Our volunteers stand on the corner of
Niagara and Porter and sell the paper for one dollar," said Chapter
President Al Brusetti. "This year we collected nearly $500."
Brusetti joined Chapter 77 in the early 1980s because, he said,
"the VFW post I was in had only one other Vietnam veteran. They just
weren't active in Vietnam veterans issues."
The commitment to children extends to the chapter Speakers Bureau and
the presentations it makes on the Vietnam War to students from grade
school to college.
"We have a full collection of military memorabilia," said
Schreier. "We present a slide show and then haul out the flak vests,
helmets, M-60 machine gun mock-up, and Ho Chi Minh sandals." The
presentation also includes a photo display.
"You should see these kids when we put the flak vest on
them," he laughed. "They just kind of shrivel into the ground.
Then we put the steel pot on their heads, and they get an idea of what
it's like to carry that weight."
Because Christmas can be a lonely time for servicemen and women
stationed around the world, Chapter 77 created Operation Gift Lift five
years ago. The chapter solicits donations from local merchants and makes
goody bags: tooth brushes and toothpaste, shampoo, soap, playing cards,
games, and candy. The bags are shipped to troops serving overseas.
Even though the chapter sponsors the activity, it is Denner and Norah
Astyk who devote the time, energy, and space to make it successful.
Operation Gift Lift takes up a lot of their home every Christmas: most of
the basement and spreading into the kitchen and dining room when the
Norah Astyk is a teacher; she has her young students make hand-drawn
Christmas greeting cards that are included in the packages.
In early November each year, volunteers swarm through the Astyk home
and assemble the gift bags, pack them in cartons, and take them to UPS for
transport to the Army Depot in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
From there, the Army ships them to American servicemen and women around
the world. Up to 300 bags are sent out each November; they reach troops in
time for Christmas.
The chapter is an active participant in Buffalo’s Inner Harbor
Development project, which will expand the Buffalo Naval Museum by a third
and develop the Walk Of Heroes--a quiet, contemplative area adjacent to
the Inner Harbor.
"We were full participants with the landscape architects and
engineers," Brusetti said. "They wanted Vietnam veterans to be
involved in the design process."
The terminus of the Erie Canal is on the Niagara River and each year
the chapter sets up a booth during Canal Fest, a community fair that
features ethnic foods, carnival rides, crafts, and the "If It Floats
It's A Boat Race."
The chapter answers questions about Vietnam, benefits and services
available, and about VVA. Because some veterans never attend veteran
functions but will come to community activities, Chapter 77 uses that
face-to-face exchange to recruit them into the veterans community.
The chapter remembers those still missing with an annual program at the
Batavia VA Medical Center. This commitment grew from the chapter's
affiliation with the late Eva Rozo, a Gold Star Mother whose son SFC James
Milan Rozo has been listed as missing since June 23, 1970.
The chapter is also very active in legislative lobbying efforts in New
York. It takes pride in being part of the group that forced the state
legislature to enact the Veterans Buy Back provision in the state pension
system. Government employees who are military veterans are able to
"buy back" up to three years of their military service to be
counted in the calculation for a pension when they retire from jobs with
the state or local governments.
Al Schreier is chair of the annual Golf Tournament that raises money
for the chapter’s general fund. "We had 112 golfers this
year," he said. "It's a lot of fun. We started out six years ago
with 55 golfers. It has become so successful that we have had to start
turning people away."
The group is especially proud of its color guard, which takes part in
dozens of community events each year, from parades to memorial services.
From time to time they are called upon to present the colors at the
funerals of local veterans.
But Chapter 77 members think of themselves as more than a veteran's
"We are a community resource," Schreier said proudly.
"We work on veterans issues, but we focus on the entire community.
Wherever we go, whatever we do increases the public awareness of who we
"There isn't a single person involved in politics in the Buffalo
area who doesn't know who we are," echoes Brusetti. "I'm proud
to serve as a member of Vietnam Veterans of America in Buffalo and Erie
County. We are a great plus for the area."
"Our people are the basis for our success," Schreier said.
"You don't need to be an officer or a board member, you just do what
you can. We look forward to hosting VVA members at the Leadership
Conference. Welcome to Buffalo."