Port St. Lucie’s Vietnam Veterans of America Michel F. Bradley chapter sure gets around.
On Saturday, Jan. 20, it will be on hand for the annual Purple Heart Cane Ceremony at the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce. Purple Heart recipients receive free, handcrafted walking canes at the yearly ceremony.
“It’s quite the crowd that goes to that,” said Michael Kiper, vice president of the chapter.
The 1 p.m. ceremony is free and open to the public. The museum is at 3300 N. State Road A1A, Fort Pierce.
The Indian River Woodcarvers Club annually crafts dozens of the personalized canes for veterans who request them. The Port St. Lucie VVA chapter provides an honor guard for the annual ceremony.
Lloyd Lasenby is the Purple Heart Cane Program coordinator at the woodcarvers club. He’s also a Vietnam War veteran.
“This program has allowed me to meet so many heroes,” Lasenby said.
The Purple Heart Cane Project has given more than 200 canes to combat-wounded veterans from all branches and eras of service during the previous five ceremonies. This will be the sixth annual ceremony. The canes feature bald eagle heads for grips, along with the names, ranks, branches and service, and received awards of the recipients. Lasenby said this ceremony will make almost 300 canes that the club has given.
In coming months the PSL Vietnam Veterans of America chapter will crank up for baseball season. The St. Lucie Mets co-host Military Appreciation Night in late May with the local chapter. This will be the fourth year. The Mets’ assistant general manager, Traer Van Allen, said Military Appreciation Night is one of the team’s most well-attended games.
“It’s exciting to give back and work with a group like the (Vietnam Veterans of America chapter 566),” he said.
The game is a fundraiser for the VVA. The Mets play in custom Military Appreciation Night jerseys that are auctioned off at the end of the game. The VVA uses the money it raises at the game to help veterans in need. Kiper said many are referred by the St. Lucie County Veteran Services manager, Wayne Teegardin.
“You’re a vet, you’re a vet,” Kiper said. “We help any veteran.”
Kiper said the Port St. Lucie VVA chapter has about 70 members and is growing. One reason for that is being in Florida. About a third of Florida’s nearly 1.5 million veterans are Vietnam-era. Membership in the Vietnam Veterans of America is open to all veterans who served in Vietnam from February 1961 to May 1975, and all veterans who served from August 1964 to May 1975. That means the youngest members are 60 – at or nearing retirement and finding more time to join organizations and do volunteer work, so they’re looking around.
“I didn’t know VVA existed until about five years ago,” Kiper said.
In all, there were about 8.7 million served in the military from 1964 to 1975, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs. About 3.4 million deployed to Southeast Asia. There are about 7.4 million Vietnam-era veterans in the U.S. now. It’s likely Florida has one of the fastest-growing populations due to late-life migration. Kipler is in that group.
He’d served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968. “I was 1st Cavalry,” the Army veteran said.
Like many at the time, Kipler was a draftee. “I was a Purple Heart recipient,” Kipler explained. “I got a couple of those.”
Having fulfilled his military obligation, Kipler went home to Indiana. “I worked at International Harvester in Fort Wayne, and they closed the plant,” he said. “I had four boys. I had to do something.”
Kipler headed to the Treasure Coast to work in construction about 22 years ago. Then he went to work for Lowes. When the 71-year-old retired, he turned his attention to helping fellow veterans.
“Now I spend most my time in the (Vietnam Veterans of America),” he said.
To find out more about the Purple Heart Cane Project, visit www.indianriverwoodcarvers.weebly.com. The VVA chapter has a Facebook page at www.facebook.com/vietvets566.