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Veterans hope VFW post can serve Maui community

(Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3850/Facebook)

When the Maui wildfire hit last summer, veterans organizations were among many to step up and provide help to the community.

Working from Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3850, a somewhat rundown ocean­side compound in Kihei that dates to World War II, veterans from throughout the islands went to Maui to distribute checks to fellow veterans and also give out toiletries, clothes, food and other supplies to the public.

Now the local VFW commander hopes that Post 3850, which includes a wooden building named for Maui veteran Paul Kenolio and several other buildings off Uluniu Road, can be reborn as a gathering spot, not only for veterans, but for the entire community.

“What’s happening now is the community is losing out because they haven’t been able to use the space,” said Alton Sanders, commander of Post 3850.

Just a few years ago, the property was available for rent and was used frequently for pancake breakfasts, parties and other events, Sanders said. But after a particularly rowdy luau, a formal complaint was lodged with the county, resulting in the finding of several code violations on the property. Group activities were banned just before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

“They’d put an imu pit (underground oven) in, and that was against code,” Sanders said. “There was talk of people taking turtles, and all the cars parked affected the neighbors. … It got completely out of hand.”

Sanders has now been meeting with the community and county officials to implement rules to prevent problems from recurring. He’s hoping community activities can return to the site and would like to build in amenities such as a gym area for veterans to work out.

The community has been supportive, he said, giving the post $19,000 in cash donations to help after the fire. “The neighbors have been helping us stay afloat,” he said.

That might be in part due to the goodwill generated in the aftermath of the fire, when veterans groups from across the country immediately started sending clothing, food and other supplies to the islands, along with cash donations for veterans.

“There were tons of supplies, as in tons as a weight,” said Chelsea Mack, an Iraq War veteran and now public affairs officer for the state VFW. “Baby clothing, blankets, toilet paper, hygiene products,” all of them available to the community for free. The post also hosted a free Thanksgiving dinner for the community.

Honolulu-based VFW officials have gone to Maui four times since the fire to distribute checks for veterans, helping them replace records lost in the fire, making sure they had access to health care and fielding other concerns, Mack said. “We were able to connect with veterans on a level that might not have happened without the fire,” she said.

Mack, a Realtor, also heard from veterans on Maui who’d been approached by people trying to buy their homes, saying “seven out of 10 people I talked to” had been solicited. “It was like loan sharks calling them in, browbeating them into thinking their property was worth nothing, and they’d be giving them a really good deal, ” she said.

She said it has been an emotional experience meeting veterans who survived the fire.

“I’ve never cried like that in public in my life,” said Mack. “Just sitting there and listening was so healing for these veterans, like stories of losing your wife and you’re 85 years old.”

Sanders said he met a veteran who had lost her house in the Lahaina fire of 2018, but lost her home again. Other horror stories include a veteran “who lost his wife in the fire and they wound up cutting off his benefits because they thought he died,” he said.

For those in financial need, the VFW has been distributing checks, usually in $1,000 increments, but some of the hardest-hit survivors have received up to $10,000, Sanders said. About $300,000 total has gone to veterans on Maui so far, he said.

Mack said it is important to remember that the crisis on Maui “is not over,” noting that federal programs, while providing aid at the moment, will eventually end.

“We need support. We need supplies. We need infrastructure. Temporary housing is huge,” she said. “People need to get involved and they need to stay passionate. It needs to remain raw in their hearts so that they still have the compassion to donate and to give.”


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