By Laura Bollin
A former commander of the Johnson Phelps VFW Post 5220 in Oak Lawn has been named to the same position with the Illinois Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Joe Stachon, of Palos Heights, was selected in June to be the next commander of the Illinois VFW. Stachon, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War, referred to the honor as “pretty cool.”
“I wasn’t drafted to serve in Vietnam, I signed up,” Stachon said. “There were no members of my family in the military then, so I don’t know why I signed up. In the 1960s, I thought it would be a neat thing to experience. It was a crazy mindset at that time.”
Stachon went through basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in the Missouri Ozarks and advanced training at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga.
“I joined the paratroopers, because it made more money,” said Stachon, who served with the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam from October 1968 to May 1969. “My first day [in Vietnam] was terrible — we were not used to the humidity and the heat. Everything kind of stunk. Even the plants rot because of the heat. It really wasn’t pleasant.”
Stachon caught a piece of shrapnel in his foot in January 1969, and in May was shot in the left shoulder. He spent 12 days in the hospital, first in Vietnam and later in Japan, and was sent to Great Lakes Naval Base in Waukegan for rehabilitation.
After his military experience, Stachon attended classes at Richard J. Daley College for two years and the Illinois Institute of Technology for a few years, then decided to become a police officer. He served with the Chicago Police Department for 30 years.
“I believe the military is a good thing,” Stachon said. “For people who do not have specific goals, it makes them focus a little bit. A lot of people today are loners with no social interaction skills. Being in the service, you learn how to interact with other people and take orders.”
Stachon said he got into the Johnson Phelps VFW by accident.
“It was about 25 years ago, when my children were competitive ice skaters in Oak Lawn and my wife and I were the heads of a booster club,” Stachon said. “We were looking for a place to have an awards party, and my wife snooped around and found the VFW in Oak Lawn.”
Stachon held the party there, and ran into a World War II veteran.
“He asked me if I was a veteran, and gave me an application to join the VFW,” Stachon said. “A year later, my brother-in-law got married at the same VFW, and we went to the wedding. The old man was there again, and asked if I ever filled out the application. He told me there was a meeting on Tuesday and I should be there.”
Stachon met with veterans who had served in World War II and the Korean War, and six months later was elected the junior vice commander for the post.
“I was in charge of all of the parties and all that,” Stachon said.
He was elected commander in 1992, when the VFW had 1,300 members. The post has about 600 members today.
“Older veterans are dying, and the eligibility to join the VFW is relatively limited,” Stachon said. “If you haven’t served overseas in a combat situation, you are not eligible. Now we are getting some Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.”
Stachon’s election as the Illinois VFW commander was the job he was working toward, he said.
“I was the Post commander nine times, and last year I was the senior vice commander, so this is a stepping stone kind of thing,” Stachon said. “It is an awesome responsibility if you think about it.”
Stachon is now in charge of several programs including the Patriot’s Pen and Voice of Democracy essay contests, military welcome home ceremonies, ritual burials for veterans and military assistance such as helping veterans that return from service find jobs and housing. Being involved in state politics is also important, he said.
“At any time, any one of our politicians could pass a bill that could remove certain benefits that was passed earlier,” Stachon said. “We want to make sure our veterans keep their benefits. We want to make sure our political people keep [legislators’] feet to the fire.”
He joked that though he was retired from the police force, and that the VFW was his hobby.
“Now when I get up, I have 52 emails waiting for me, and I am on the road every weekend, going to visit other VFW posts in the state,” he said. “My favorite thing is meeting all of the different people. Every post is a little different, and every person that you meet adds something else to that organization.”
Two of Stachon’s nephews have served in the military. Michael, 24, is serving in Hawaii and Joshua, 29, served three tours of duty in Afghanistan.
Stachon has already served the Illinois VFW as a member of the national bylaws committee, the department ways and means committee, deputy chief of staff, national chief of staff, regional membership director and a member of the department newspaper committee.
While serving overseas, Stachon earned a National Defense medal, a Vietnam Service medal, a Vietnam Campaign medal, a Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, a Combat Infantry badge and a Parachute badge. He is also a life member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart Chapter 575, a life member of the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 84, treasurer of American Legion Post 757, a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 242, vice-president of the Oak Lawn Athletic Club, a member of the Oak Lawn Chamber of Commerce, a member of the Oak Lawn Elks Lodge 2254, and commissioner of the Palos Heights Veteran’s Commission.