By Karen Zautyk
In 1969, when John F. Kane Jr. returned to his hometown following his tour of duty in Korea, his father, John Sr., a Nutley police sergeant, encouraged him to enroll as a member of the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“I asked him why,” recalled Kane Jr. (whom everyone knows as Jack), “and he said, ‘Because someday you might need the VFW.’”
Now, the VFW has officially recognized that it needs Jack Kane.
At the organization’s 95th annual convention, held in Wildwood last month, the lifelong Nutley resident and former commander of Nutley Post 493, was elected 2014-15 New Jersey state commander, representing the 236 VFW Posts in the Garden State.
His duties will be many, but his primary goal is to increase membership.
Like other veterans’ groups, the VFW’s ranks have been thinning as the membership ages. “There has been a tremendous loss of World War II veterans,” Kane told The Observer. “We’ve lost 30,000 members in New Jersey over the last 10 years,” he said.
But rather than being discouraged, the new state commander has his eyes on the future. “We have to go forward,” he said. “There are thousands of young veterans in the state. We need to impress upon them how important they are.
“We need to keep the numbers up to keep the pressure on, and to carry on the tradition.”
The “pressure” to which Kane referred is the VFW’s influence on government policy as it affects America’s military vets. “We need them [new members] to back up our political teams,” he said.
In his address to the convention, Kane emphasized the theme, stating, “We need the power of numbers to work with our legislators to prevent budget cuts on the backs of our veterans and be sure we have the health care for all who continue to serve our country and protect our freedom.”
Citing the current scandal surrounding the VA hospitals, Kane told us, “The VFW is there [in Washington] knocking on doors every day, trying to stay on top of things.
“We have a very strong Washington office,” he said. “Every day, they’re working to protect our members and to protect veterans against budget cuts.
“They’re down there fighting.”
The VFW has been fighting since its founding. It was instrumental in establishing the Veterans Administration, and in 2008, it helped win passage of the GI Bill for the 21st Century, which gave expanded educational benefits to active-duty service members fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kane, as N.J. state commander, will be working with the VFW staff in Trenton, keeping up with state legislation and interacting with the governor’s office as well as overseeing the numerous community activities the organization sponsors. These include the Voice of Democracy competition for high school students, who record audiotapes on a selected patriotic theme. Winners are selected on the local, county and state levels and scholarships are awarded. The national winner, chosen in Washington, receives a $30,000 college scholarship.
As head of the Nutley VFW Post, as well as commander of District # 4 covering Essex County, Kane has worked to keep the organization “visible around town.” This involves participating in various parades and patriotic events – and, sadly, conducting ceremonies at veterans’ wakes. The Post also sponsors hockey and Little League teams, and the post headquarters on Washington Ave. is host to various organizational meetings, including the Girl Scouts and the Nutley Irish American Assoc. (of which Kane is a former president).
Nutley Post 493 currently has 510 members, and Kane praised the efforts of the current Post commander, John McGuire, a North Hudson firefighter.
“He’s out signing up other young members,” Kane noted. “He’s really working hard to get young veterans signed up.”
Kane acknowledged that attracting the younger generation can be daunting. “They’re busy with their families, their children,” he said. “They’re going to school. They’re working. They can’t fully engage because of the time limits.”
And Kane admitted it took him awhile to commit substantial time to the VFW’s programs. For good reason. In addition to his working 35 years as a trucker, he and his wife, Patty, were busy raising eight children.
“I joined [the VFW] in 1969, and I didn’t get fully involved until 1992,” he said. But today, “involved” would be an understatement.
He assists veterans in applying for benefits, visits them in hospital, and often will personally drive them to doctor’s appointments. He also works with student veterans’ organizations at Rutgers, Montclair State and Fairleigh Dickinson universities, explaining the entitlements and benefits available to them.
In 2012, he was appointed director of Military & Veterans’ Affairs for the Township of Nutley. He also serves as coordinator and chaplain for the Veterans Council annual Memorial Day services and coordinates Nutley’s Veteran’s Day ceremonies.
Among other things.
His resume could fill several more pages.
As for his own military service, Kane joined the Army in 1967 and served with the 7th Infantry Division in the Demilitarized Zone in Korea from 1968-1969, earning the National Defense Medal and the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal.
Summing up his new role as state commander, Kane returned to the idea of recruitment, citing the need for “a big push” to get veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and “all the other hot-spots in the world” involved in the VFW, in part to ensure they are aware of the benefits available to them. So many are not.
He himself is aware of how nonmembers, unfamiliar with the VFW’s work, sometimes react. “You go to a Post and might see six or eight guys hanging around, drinking beer or playing pool,” he said. “But it’s a lot more than that.”
Jack Kane is living proof the VFW is, indeed, a lot more than that. A helluva lot more.
(Editor’s note: Membership in VFW Post 493, Nutley, is open. If you are interested in becoming a member, contact the post commander at 973-235- 9661.
There are also posts throughout Essex, Bergen and Hudson counties. To find one near you, go to njvfw.org.)