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DAV members to be honored in Fourth parade

For the second year in a row, the Carlton County Disabled American Veterans Chapter 18 is the grand marshal for the Cloquet Fourth of July parade. They got a do-over because last year's parade was canceled due to weather.

"Here's hoping lightning doesn't strike twice, a year apart," said July Fourth co-coordinator Ivan Hohnstadt. "We'd really like to see the DAV get a moment in the spotlight, since they are so often the ones quietly making things happen."

The more than 600 members of the DAV will be represented in the parade by three of its core leaders: DAV commander Stan Heuer, DAV treasurer Raffy Johnson, and Gary Dahl, VFW and DAV senior vice commander.

Hohnstadt said it seems like the DAV is everywhere in Carlton County. They have helped individual veterans after house fires and other disasters. They have helped veterans find housing, and furnished numerous homes and apartments with donated items. They have given vehicles - often donated and repaired - to veterans and veterans organizations. They support 23rd Veteran, the St. Cloud veterans hospital, Silver Bay Veterans Home, Crazy Troop, state DAV efforts, the Cloquet Combined Honor Guard (with new uniforms most recently), various veteran fishing and camping trips and a long list of other efforts. They also host many events for their own members along with large community meals twice a year.

"For me, it fills my soul being able to help the veteran who has nothing and needs our help," said Heuer, who leads many of the DAV efforts. "That's what keeps me going, keeps the drive going, just to help [those] who are in need."

Johnson oversees the annual community meals (which serve more than 500 each) at Thanksgiving and Christmas, spearheaded by the DAV and held at Zion Lutheran Church. He is uniquely qualified, having retired from the Army National Guard as a senior food operations sergeant. "I feel proud that this organization can take on such a big task," he said. "The support we have from our members is pretty overwhelming."

Johnson also gets involved in lots of events focusing more on veterans and DAV members, including fishing trips, golf outings, movie nights, picnics, holiday gatherings, four-wheeler rides and activites such as trips to Twins games. He loves the camaraderie.

"I like to make events that vets can come to and have fun," he said.

As for Navy veteran Dahl, he is a leader in the DAV and the Cloquet VFW, plus he's a member of the Cloquet American Legion. His little red truck is parked outside the VFW most days, as he keeps things ticking at the building in West End Cloquet, now home to all three veterans groups, as well as the Cloquet Eagles Club.

To pay for all their efforts, the DAV holds numerous fundraisers. Clothing donations (collected in bright green boxes around the county) is their biggest fundraiser, with donations adding up to nearly 500,000 pounds of clothing last year alone. Other fundraisers include selling B&B brats and burgers before every summer holiday in the Premiere Theatres parking lot, plus two massive rummage sales at the Armory each spring and fall. The DAV will also come and pick up furniture or larger items people want to donate.

Growing fast

As veterans and other service groups nationwide have been declining in membership overall, the Carlton County DAV group is on the rise, with close to 650 members countywide.

"We're the fastest growing chapter in the country, and we have been for the last four or five years," Johnson said.

It's a tight-knit group. New members are always welcome. Nonveterans can join the auxiliary, which is growing almost as quickly as the DAV. They are proactive about getting new members, talking to veterans, actually paying the fees for their members to join, Johnson said.

Dahl said getting all three veterans groups in the same building, along with the Eagles, helps a lot.

"As people have gotten older, there were fewer younger members participating' so it made sense to come in with us," Dahl said, adding that a lot of veterans are members of all three organizations.

Once folks give it a try, they usually come back, Heuer added. But there's no pressure.

"The camaraderie in our chapter is second to none," said Heuer, an Army veteran. "It's awesome when you see us all together. And you can pick out the veterans in the group right away, because we're all giving each other a little bit of crap. That's just what we do and always will do."

To find out more, contact Heuer at 218-390-8483 or just come to a meeting at 7 p.m. the first Tuesday of each month at the Cloquet VFW.

"Folks need to know [that] if they don't join, these organizations will die," Johnson said.

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