VFW post was ready for female leader

Published 10:04 am Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Stephanie Cowart of Suffolk was still on active duty the first time she visited the Franklin Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4411 in 2004. A friend had talked her into volunteering to spend time with some of the post’s older veterans.

Now, she has the honor of serving as the post’s first-ever female commander. The now-retired naval officer was elected in June of this year to succeed Scott Seddon, the post’s previous leader.

“I think it’s been a long time coming,” Cowart said of her being the first woman to command the post. “I’m just honored that they [the membership] believed in me and supported me.

“Sometimes coming to these smaller VFWs, it’s 99 percent men but they were ready for a change. It’s one of the greatest honors I’ve ever had.”

Since her election, the post has arranged, donated or provided services in the amount of over $55,000 to local veterans, and its membership has contributed over 700 volunteer hours. Most recently, it held a Christmas party on Saturday for the children of local veterans, where children made cards and painted rocks to give to older veterans living in local nursing homes.

“Everything we do is as a post,” she said, deflecting the credit for the post’s accomplishments from herself.

She has also realized over the past six months of her tenure as commander that running a local VFW post is practically a full-time job, having recently stepped down from a position at Keurig Green Mountain in Windsor to devote more time to VFW activities. Those activities can range from planning events for the children of veterans, such as the Christmas party, to fixing a veteran’s wheelchair ramp, to helping someone file for disability benefits.

“Especially here in Franklin, we have a very large veteran population,” she said. “We deal mostly with older veterans but we’ve done a lot of work also for some of our younger disabled veterans in the area and whoever needs help. We’re always looking for families to help out, and unfortunately a lot of people don’t think of us as a resource.

“We do a lot of handiwork around the house and yard for our local vets; we raise money for scholarships for our local kids. It’s not just sitting in a bar drinking beer, telling war stories.”

Membership in the VFW is open to veterans who have participated in a foreign war or action, Cowart explained, such as World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans who have received a medal for having served in a time of war or who have received hazardous duty pay or imminent danger pay are eligible. The Franklin VFW meets twice per month on the first and third Wednesdays at 7 p.m. at 3385 Beaverdam Road, Franklin.

“We have a lot of the same goals [as the American Legion],” she said. “We’re a little bit different in that we are the only veterans organization that lobbies in [Washington] DC for veterans’ rights. The dues people pay each year or the money the national VFW raises, that money is used to go to congress and protect our rights and benefits.”

Cowart’s goals for 2018 and beyond include increasing the post’s membership, recruiting younger members and to start a Sgt. Jayton D. Patterson scholarship fund, named for a Sedley Marine who was killed in action in 2005. The post building was also named for him approximately three years ago. She hopes to be able to grant at least one such scholarship per year to the son or daughter of a local veteran.

Cowart retired from the Navy in 2015 after serving for 23 years. She completed bootcamp in 1992 and received her rating as a mineman — an underwater mine specialist. At her 10-year mark, she was selected for the Navy’s limited-duty officer program, received a commission to the rank of ensign and spent the remainder of her career as a surface ordinance officer.

“I was on cruisers and destroyers, and anything that went boom off that ship, I was responsible for,” she explained.

She retired with the rank of lieutenant. In addition to serving as the commander of Post 4411, she also now runs her own business, a handyman/contractor service called “That Handy Chick.”