VFW chief armed for service

From her Iraq war tour to her tenure commanding Walla Walla's VFW, Elaine Vandiver lives to serve.

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Some people are born to serve. Others grow into it.

Elaine Vandiver is a bit of both.

She's Walla Walla's new commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Grant Farmer Post 992. The 31-year-old former U.S. Army sergeant also is the first woman to hold the post's top position. But such gender distinction is neither here nor there for the Iraq war veteran who served in a combat engineer battalion.

"The only time it mattered [in Iraq] was when you were trying to set up sanitation facilities - guys over here and females over there," she smiled.

What she wants to do in her year term as commander of the VFW's 420 members and its 204-member Ladies Auxiliary is simply to serve - fellow veterans as well as her community.

She's well armed.

Vandiver was raised in Hammond, Ind., where her parents were involved in the community, churches, schools and the historical society. Although she says nowadays she's more like her parents, back then she was more interested in "hanging out" with her friends.

In college, however, she chose public administration as her major and graduated from Indiana University in 2002. The Army entered her mind several months earlier, on the morning she woke up for classes on Sept. 11, 2001, and learned her country was under terrorist attack.

"That was a real life-changer moment for many people," she said. For her, it was wanting to obtain more "life experience, even at the expense of going to war."

She got both.

"I knew when I signed up it was a given," she said, recalling her Army instructors telling everyone to "get ready because you're going to go."

She enlisted in 2002 and, after basic and advanced training, was assigned to 864th Combat Engineer Battalion out of Fort Lewis, near Tacoma.

She went to Kuwait in February 2003 during the military buildup to invade Iraq. On invasion day, March 19, she crossed the border as part of a convoy hauling fuel and heavy construction equipment to use to clear Iraqi defensive obstacles.

"The first thing that struck me was the amount of children in a war zone," she said. "And they were so close to us but they didn't seem scared, like it was a parade with all the sounds of war."

Later, outside Camp Taji, about 20 miles north of Baghdad, she was in a convoy moving people and supplies through a small town when the vehicles ground to a halt. That's when the sound of war for her got a little too close.

"We were sitting for a half-hour on narrow streets," she said, recalling Iraqis walking around with AK-47s slung across their shoulders. "People were everywhere. I had that gut feeling that we were just sitting ducks.

"We were barely out of town," she recalled, "when someone detonated an improvised explosive device that almost threw three guys out of the truck behind me."

She completed her tour of duty and returned to Fort Lewis in March 2004, and was discharged in July 2005. But she didn't leave military service behind.

A week out of the Army she took a civilian job at Madigan Army Medical Center at Fort Lewis, where she processed paperwork to move doctors, nurses and other personnel to and from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Eight months later she moved to the Army Criminal Investigation Command, where she served as executive assistant to the unit's commander.

After 18 months in that job she and her husband Mike, a soldier whom she first met when she was attending Indiana University and married in 2004 when they were both assigned to Fort Lewis, began looking to move out of the Tacoma area.

In September 2008 they chose Walla Walla, where they both found civilian jobs at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers district office. She serves as a contract specialist and he is a project assistant.

Comparing life as a soldier to working as a civilian in the Corps, "You still have a very formal structure," Vandiver says. "I guess it differs in that I have more control over my career."

And for one whose career includes looking for ways to serve veterans as well as her community, she joined the VFW in November 2008.

"Before I knew it, they made me post surgeon," she said, describing the role as visiting veterans who are sick or in the hospital to ensure their needs are being met. Soon after she became the post's junior vice commander, and in June she was elected commander.

The post's membership is predominantly veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. United by patriotism and service in foreign combat zones, they nevertheless have mixed views on the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"There are folks who really want them to come home - they know what it's like to be out there - and those who know it's important to finish the mission," Vandiver said.

But there are few members who served in the current wars. Vandiver said she can't quite put her finger on why these younger veterans are underrepresented but thinks part of it is that they are going through "military service burnout and working on getting themselves back into civilian life."

Toward that end, the "tweaks here and there" Vandiver wants to make at the VFW include reaching out to younger veterans. Part of that will be an effort to reflect the vastly increased numbers of women serving in the military by creating a men's auxiliary for husbands and other family members of female veterans.

Still, continued fundraisers like the annual community Cowboy Breakfast during the Walla Walla Fair & Frontier Days weekend, community service and volunteer projects, helping vets work through issues with the Veterans Administration and working to ensure the county's 150 homeless vets have a place to live all will be dominant undertakings under her watch, she said.

Overall, Vandiver said she is fortunate to have assumed command of a VFW post that is "vibrant, healthy and still moving forward."

"I'm looking for success in the margins," she said.

Thomas P. Skeen can be reached at (509) 526-8320 or tomskeen@wwub.com.

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