WAUSEON - As a Marine corporal, Gregorio Vela stormed a war-torn beachhead in Vietnam.
On June 30, the Wauseon factory worker was elected commander of the Ohio Veterans of Foreign Wars. These days, he's spending three days each week barnstorming the state's VFW posts, drumming up new members, raising funds, and recruiting volunteers to make the statewide organization work.
“He's been at it for years; he's come right up through the ranks,” said Robert Funk, adjutant quartermaster for the Ohio VFW. “Now he's responsible for all the VFWs in the state - that's about 100,000 members. You could call him the CEO of all the posts in Ohio.”
Even if his title is an exalted one, Mr. Vela, 59, is a down-to-earth volunteer.
Erv Yoder, a fellow Vietnam veteran and member of Wauseon VFW, said Mr. Vela turns over most of his after-hours time to the organization.
“Whenever there's a parade, Greg's out there marching,” Mr. Yoder said. “He's on the burial squad for our fallen members. He knows the issues important to veterans, and serves on advisory committees - and he still fits into his uniform!”
Mr. Vela was born and raised in central Michigan, a son of Mexican migrant workers. In 1963, he decided to put off college and enlist in the Marines. He trained as a ship-to-shore radio operator, just in time for the United States to step up its role in Vietnam.
“We did a beachhead landing outside Da Nang one night in 1965,” he recalled. “It was the first large-scale American landing, and yeah, it was scary,” he recalled. His service took him to the Philippines, Japan, Thailand, and Puerto Rico. He earned the Good Conduct Medal, the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, the Vietnam Campaign Medal, and a Presidential Unit Citation.
Mr. Vela left the service as a corporal in 1967 and took a factory job in Wauseon. The Vietnam war was unpopular on American campuses, and he didn't feel welcome at the colleges he'd considered before. A few months later, he joined VFW Post 7424.
He was an enthusiastic young man, a valuable addition to a post mostly populated by World War II and Korea veterans.
“They welcomed me with open arms. I was adjutant there for about 10 years,” Mr. Vela said. “I started moving up. I'm still the quartermaster there, sort of the finance man. Now, all the line officers at the post are Vietnam veterans.”
He occupied VFW leadership posts in Wauseon, Defiance County, and Ohio District 1, and received All-State and All-American Commander awards.
In his new, year-long position, Mr. Vela hopes to recruit younger ex-soldiers and sailors to join their local posts, and heighten awareness of how much volunteer work Ohio's veterans perform locally.
“Our membership is aging. Nationally, we lose about 1,100 Korean and World War II members each day,” he said. “We're working to install a diversity program, so our veterans of the Gulf War, Somalia, Desert Storm, and Desert Shield can all feel welcome. We need to keep our numbers up, so we can lobby Congress and make a difference.”
He still works as a machine operator at Timken-Latrobe-Koncor in Wauseon. He and his wife, Nancy, have three sons and a daughter. Even so, Mr. Vela said he's ready to take on the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday schedule that his new volunteer position requires.
“It's really not a problem for me. I love traveling and meeting the good people of Ohio,” he said. “I love to publicize a good thing.”