For the first time in its 42-year history, the Mashpee Veterans of Foreign Wars post has voted a woman to its top leadership position.
Rebecca J. Silva, a 44-year-old Iraq war veteran from Falmouth, will be introduced at the Memorial Day ceremony on Monday as the new commander of VFW Post 5489. The retired Massachusetts Army National Guardsman comes to the job after being the first woman commander of a district VFW in the state, the Cape and Islands VFW District 17.
Ms. Silva’s interests and her life history fit well with the Mashpee VFW’s new identity as an organization focused on supporting veterans of all generations, including those returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She is typical of the new members who made the Mashpee post the fastest-growing in the state in 2009 and one of the fastest-growing in the nation, with membership increasing from 40 to more than 100 in two years.
“I try to help,” she said in a phone interview this week. “I am very passionate about that.”
In 2009, she cared for a friend’s 6-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter for a year while the woman was deployed overseas with the National Guard. Ms. Silva moved into the family’s house in Osterville and took over the daily tasks of the household.
“She had nobody to care for them,” Ms. Silva said. “I thought anyone would have done what I did.”
Ms. Silva, who is 44 and does not have any children of her own, briefly wondered whether she could handle becoming a caretaker of children overnight. “I went from zero kids to two kids,” she said. “Instant family.” She need not have worried. It all worked out.
Her actions earned her an award last week from the Unsung Heroines of Massachusetts program presented by the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women. The award is presented to women who “use their time, talent, spirit, and enthusiasm to enrich the lives of others,” according to the commission.
“She’s certainly not a shrinking violet,” said Edwin Theis, who will step down as commander of the Mashpee VFW after 10 years in the position. “She’s not afraid to take her rightful place in veterans affairs.”
Since Ms. Silva joined the post in 2008, she has been good at bringing people to consensus on decisions, organizing events, and communicating with members, Mr. Theis said.
Ms. Silva said, as commander, she will continue to help veterans in collaboration with groups like Cape Cod Cares for the Troops, AmVets in Falmouth, Cape Cod Veterans organization in Dennis, Falmouth Military Support Group, Heroes in Transition, and the Deputy Sheriffs Association. With their help, veterans have received money to fix a broken heating unit, cover their rent, or to install wood floors that are easier to navigate with a wheelchair.
The Mashpee VFW will also continue to award a college scholarship and recognize one teacher from the elementary schools, the middle school, and the high school each year for excellence in teaching civics.
When it comes to helping soldiers and veterans, Ms. Silva has years of practice. As a unit clerk in the National Guard from 1986 to 2009, she was in charge of making sure the soldiers got paid on time and that they received their benefits. She collected paperwork and emergency contact information and ensured that soldiers were able to take advantage of civilian education benefits.
“I was always there for them,” she said.
When her unit was deployed for one year to Taji, Iraq, in March 2004, she took care of the benefits for air traffic controllers working in Iraq. The town was 20 miles northwest of Baghdad, a place of extreme conflict in those days. Mortars and rockets hit their post daily. Fortunately, no one from the unit was killed.
“We went over with 60 people and we came home with 60 people,” she said. Although she did not experience a loss of a fellow soldier, she was changed by the experience of serving in Iraq, she said.
“I can empathize with someone losing a buddy in battle.”
She has also faced many of the challenges that are typical of returning veterans. After leaving the Army National Guard, it took her two and a half years to find a job, a scheduling coordinator position at Shade and Shutter Systems in Hyannis. She lives with her 71-year-old parents in Teaticket in a spirit of mutual help, she said.
“There’s no way I could afford to have an apartment on my own,” she said.
As she takes on the job of commander, Ms. Silva says she has ideas for the future. She is particularly concerned about providing enough support for the younger siblings of service men and women killed in action. She would like to offer a meeting space for people to gather, something the Mashpee VFW currently lacks. The post has avoided establishing a clubhouse with a bar, which many members consider an unsavory relic from the history of VFWs in America. The Mashpee VFW meets in the library at the moment. Ms. Silva says she is looking for a space to call their own.
“The folks coming home, they just want a place to fit in,” she said. “Not to go to a bar and drink, just to be with people who understand. It’s hard to understand if you haven’t been there. You come back different.”