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Photos: U.S. Merchant Marine veterans honored on Thanksgiving by VFW Post on Saipan

By Joe Gelhaus
Chief Engineer, USNS Montford Point (T-ESD-1)

On Thanksgiving Day, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3457 honored U.S. merchant mariners as veterans of World War II by posting the U.S. Merchant Marine Crest among the five other sister branches of Armed Services of the United States in the post's clubhouse in Garapan, Saipan. The post also proudly flies the U.S. Merchant Marine flag alongside the other Armed Service flags.

VFW Post 3457 is one of the first VFW posts in the world to honor the U.S. Merchant Marine and its mariners. They have an open door policy that welcomes every member of the U.S. Merchant Marine to enter and enjoy the clubhouse atmosphere. VFW members on Saipan, most of whom are Vietnam veterans, all know and say that nothing can happen in an armed conflict without the U.S. Merchant Marine first "delivering the goods."

This was all made possible by the efforts of VFW Post 3457 Commander Mike O'Kelley, who is a 30-year retired U.S. Navy Master Chief and who earned a Bronze Star with Valor and multiple Purple Hearts during his five tours in Vietnam. Mike joined the U.S. Merchant Marine and American Maritime Officers in 1997. As an AMO member, he sailed as an assistant engineer on various vessels, mostly in the Military Sealift Command Prepositioning Fleet, and retired a few years ago. He is a tireless proponent of the U.S. Merchant Marine and strives very hard to have VFW leadership accept U.S. merchant mariners who have earned the Merchant Marine Expeditionary Medal to qualify for VFW membership. The usual hang up is that this medal is not issued by the Department of Defense, but the Department of Transportation, because the U.S. Merchant Marine falls under that department's jurisdiction. However, Mike is persistent and vows never to stop trying to gain recognition for U.S. merchant mariners and their service to their country.

Thanksgiving was a fitting day to install the U.S. Merchant Marine Crest, and I was personally thankful for that. The VFW membership showed up later with a ham and turkey feast to honor the dozens of U.S. merchant mariners, including members of AMO and SIU, who were at the VFW Clubhouse that evening. It was a great day! Thanks Mike!

AMO member Chief Engineer Joe Gelhaus, A VFW Life Member through his U.S. Navy Service in Desert Storm and Operation Restore Hope, thanks VFW Post 3457 Commander Mike O'Kelley for his work to gain recognition for the service of U.S. Merchant Marine veterans.

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