By CHRIS MORRIS
FLOYD COUNTY —
As a junior officer last February, Bill Thien was sent to North Dakota to meet with veterans. It was cold and the weather conditions were not the best.
But this year, Thien will have a little more say in where he travels during the winter months after being elected the VFW National Commander — the organization’s highest post — on July 24 in Louisville, during the 114th VFW National Convention.
“One of the juniors will get to make that trip this year,” Thien said with a laugh.
Thien, a native of New Albany and a resident of Georgetown, will lead 1.6 million VFW members for the next year until a new commander is elected in St. Louis next July.
Not bad for a kid who joined the Navy in 1969 as a 17-year-old senior in high school.
“It’s a dream come true,” he said. “After I was elected and came home, I just kind of sat there and said ‘wow.’”
Thien has been involved with the VFW at the local, state and national levels for more than four decades. He joined the VFW in 1971 at Post 3281 in New Albany, where he maintains his Gold Legacy Life Membership. He has served the VFW in many leadership positions including post commander and Eighth District commander where he oversaw 13 posts.
He was elected to the national board in 2003 and also served as head of one of the four VFW regions — the Big 10 — where he oversaw 10 states. He has also held positions on numerous national committees, including vice chairman of citizenship education and community service and as chairman of national scholarship and recognition committee.
Jody Hall, quartermaster at VFW 3281 in New Albany, Thien’s home unit, said members there are proud to have one of their own as the national leader.
“He was a mentor to me and a super nice guy,” Hall said. “He is going to be highly dedicated to veterans’ causes.”
His new job will keep him on the road 300 days. He already has trips scheduled to Washington, D.C., Hawaii and Russia this year to give speeches and meet with veterans. He also hopes to return to China during his term.
There are 7,100 VFW posts in the United States that he will oversee. He is only the fourth Hoosier since 1899 to be elected commander in chief of the VFW.
The national VFW headquarters are in Kansas City but Thien said he will mainly work out of his Georgetown home.
“The staff does a great job getting me where I need to be,” he said.
His focus as commander in chief is to always improve quality of life for veterans and their families. He said that has always been the mission of the VFW.
“We have an obligation to veterans and their families. We have to make sure they are taken care of,” Thien said. “The VA system is the best system in the world, but it’s not perfect.”
Thien served in the U.S. Navy from 1969-1974 followed by a five-year stint in the Indiana National Guard. His decorations include the Vietnam Service Medal with three stars, Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 Bar, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal [Korea], National Defense Service Medal and several from the National Guard.
During his acceptance speech last month, he praised the hard work of VFW members and encouraged them not to be overly modest in spreading the word about the organization’s accomplishments.
“We have far too many military people and veterans who believe that it’s the pentagon or the president or the Congress who are responsible for their military and disability pay increases or other quality of life improvements,” he said. “We have to tell our story. You tell them that every new program, pay or benefit that they now enjoy is due to the lobbying we do to create them.
“What makes the Veterans of Foreign Wars great is the quality of our people who unselfishly dare to make a personal difference in the lives of fellow comrades, communities and nation. Caring for others, comrades, is what makes the VFW so great ... and I hope you continue to spread the word to everyone.”
Over the past decade VFW membership has dwindled nationwide. Thien said he wants the organization to do a better job of recruiting younger veterans and enhancing the mentoring program. In some states, Indiana included, the VFW now has a men’s auxiliary which has attracted some new members.
He also wants to continue to look for and bring home the remains of fallen veterans on foreign soil. He doesn’t want the country to forget those missing in action.
“That is important to us,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to have the priority it once had.”
Thien said he is eager to begin his tenure as commander in chief. He said taking care of veterans and their families will always be a priority for him and the organization.
“When I leave next July in St. Louis, I want to make sure I leave it better off than I found it,” he said.