VFW Memorial Post 6675 is more than just another bar in South Side
September 4, 2018
In a Pittsburgh community known for its bars and social clubs, just one stands out as a monument to a local hero. With its patriotic exterior showing a vibrant pattern of stars and stripes behind a stone memorial, South Side Veterans of Foreign Wars James P. Cryster III Memorial Post 6675 on Sidney Street is named after an Army veteran and Pittsburgh native who earned the Silver Star for combat actions in Vietnam.
Inside the post, a large 5 feet by 15 feet mural dedicated to those who have made military sacrifices is prominently displayed. Centered in the painting beneath the outstretched wings of an American bald eagle are the portraits of both Cryster and his father – each decorated combat veterans.
In addition to receiving the Silver Star, the younger Cryster earned the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. A display containing replicas of his awards and combat decorations is located on the wall to the left of the mural.
According to Vietnam veteran and VFW 6675 Post Commander Robert C. Szoszorek, it is his unit's mission to see that Cryster's memory – as well as other combat veterans and their family members – is kept up for generations to come.
"We're more than just another place to get a drink," said Szoszorek, a retired crime scene photographer who earned the Purple Heart. "After operational costs, all of the money that we raise here through the post canteen goes to support the VFW and its programs."
Statistics released by the national VFW would agree with Szoszorek. Over the last dozen years, approximately 2 million service members and their families have received assistance from the VFW Military Assistance Program. Additionally, the VFW's world-wide network of service officers has helped nearly 300,000 disabled veterans recover approximately $6.9 billion in benefits over the last three years.
Also, Pittsburgh-area posts have supported local student scholarship programs, and taken part in fundraising activities for the Arthritis Foundation.
"We try our best to live up to the memory of a real hero by honoring those who are left behind," said Szoszorek. "The sacrifices made by those who have gone to war need to be honored and respected."
Over the last several decades, recruitment has become more difficult for VFW posts like Szoszorek's – largely due to high standards. Membership requirements for the 119-year-old society founded in nearby Pittsburgh are often more restrictive than other veterans service organizations. Each candidate for the VFW must present documented proof of receiving a campaign or occupational medal for overseas service, or have served 30 consecutive or 60 non-consecutive days in Korea, or received hostile fire or imminent danger pay. Additionally, no applicant with a dishonorable discharge is accepted.
Also, VFW Post 6675 must draw new members from a shrinking pool of veterans. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the number of veterans in Allegheny County is projected to decrease from roughly 82,550 to 63,500 over the next five years. And not all of these veterans will be eligible for VFW membership.
And like the South Side of Pittsburgh, the rest of the country is also following this trend. The American Association of Retired Persons recently released numbers that show the VFW's ranks have decreased by one-third of over the last 20 years. Currently, the VFW has a few thousand more than 1.2 million members – not including its auxiliary. Of these, more than 400,000 are octogenarians or older.
Commander Szoszorek said he would like to change that direction at VFW Post 6675. Although the group welcomes social members, veterans are needed to keep the unit moving forward, he said.
"I would encourage any combat veterans to bring their discharge papers in and sign up to be members," he said. "We are not an exclusive male club – we all open to all combat veterans. We welcome anybody who is qualified, and would like to honor the service of our fallen heroes by helping those who have come home."
For more information about the VFW Post 6675 and its activities, contact Commander Szoszorek at: 412-904-2842.
(Michael P. Mauer served as an Army photojournalist during Operation Desert Storm. He was awarded the Joint Service Commendation Medal by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf for his actions during the war, and is a life member of VFW Post 914 Intrepid, West Mifflin.)