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Refugee Rescue: VFW ​Leads Afghan Redemption Mission

Updated: Feb 28

This article first appeared as the cover story in the February edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication

By Bruce William Deckert — Today Magazine Editor-in-Chief

A LOCAL CHAPTER of the Veterans of Foreign Wars has undertaken a major humanitarian initiative — an Afghan refugee resettlement project.

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The VFW’s mission is to help resettle in Connecticut an Afghan family whose members helped U.S. forces during military operations in Afghanistan, where such families continue to live in dangerous conditions because of their support of U.S. and coalition forces.

The U.S. war in Afghanistan began in October 2001, less than one month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and lasted until August 2021 — the two-decade war is the longest conflict in American history.

While tens of thousands of Afghan nationals who supported the U.S. were evacuated in 2021, thousands more were unable to exit the country, and more than two years later many face a perilous existence in Afghanistan.

Avon-based VFW Post 3272 announced its Afghan refugee project in August 2023 and has since been laying the extensive groundwork to prepare to bring an Afghan family to Greater Hartford.

“We have a moral obligation to help those who helped us at the risk of their own lives,” says Post 3272 commander Tim Healy.

“In addition, we want to engage younger veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, to help them bring their personal involvement in these struggles to a meaningful, satisfying conclusion.”

The VFW has utilized a blueprint and training provided by Integrated Refugee and Immigration Services.

A New Haven-based nonprofit, IRIS seeks to empower refugees and immigrants to become self-sufficient and integrated members of their new communities, while recognizing that these newcomers enrich the local communities they join. IRIS is a government-contracted agency via the U.S. State Department.

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The mountains of Afghanistan are beautiful and daunting — after the U.S. military pulled out in 2021, many Afghans who supported ​U.S. forces were unable to evacuate and have faced the daunting threat of extrajudicial imprisonment, torture and execution

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“With substantial help from men and women who have done this sort of thing before, we have been able to attract more than 50 volunteers and collect over $20,000 to fund the project,” says Healy. “I stand in awe of our community’s generosity and willingness to help.”

Brian O’Donnell, a member of VFW Post 3272, has been one of the project’s volunteer leaders.

“Our commander Tim Healy proposed to our post members that we sponsor an Afghan interpreter and his family,” says O’Donnell.

“Five of us, including Tim, agreed to be team leaders in making it work. Jerry Stinson and I work on the financial aspect.”

A Vietnam veteran, O’Donnell is the longtime owner of Midas of Canton, located on Route 44 aka Albany Turnpike.

“I called my good friend Carrie Firestone,” says O’Donnell, “who is very active in worthwhile causes and has a very large group of moms that help her causes when called — she has enthusiastically been involved with us from the beginning.”

An Avon resident, Firestone is a book author and a co-founder of ForwardCT, a civic service organization. She has written a Today Magazine article about the 100 Women Who Can movement.

“I also belong to the Avon-Canton Rotary,” O’Donnell notes. “They have been very helpful financially.”

The Rotary has donated $2500 for the Afghan project, and several Rotarians have given individually. An unidentified individual from the Avon-based Church of Saint Ann gave $5000, according to O’Donnell, and a benefit concert at the Avon Senior Center also raised funds.

A $3000 grant from the Avon chapter of UNICO National, a prominent Italian-American service organization, kick-started the fundraising.

The VFW and IRIS are working together as co-sponsors of the Afghan family. Volunteer teams are helping the family obtain housing, furniture, clothing, employment and medical care. Other necessary tasks include Dari and Pashto interpretation, English language training, transportation and cultural introductions.

“Our VFW post is supplying some of the volunteers needed, but we’re also relying on the community’s help to get the whole job done properly,” says Healy, who is also a Vietnam veteran.

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VFW members Tim Healy (far left), Chris Bulko, Gene Dzialo and Tom Vorhees at the Submarine Force Museum in Groton — Healy is the post commander and Bulko is the volunteer housing team leader for the Afghan refugee project

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“We are extremely grateful that the Farmington Valley community has joined us in the critically important work of what our Jewish neighbors would term ‘tikkun olam’ or repairing the world.”

IRIS approved the VFW’s application shortly after Christmas, which included a careful vetting procedure through the Department of Homeland Security. The VFW is conducting the final steps in the process before submitting a green-light form to IRIS that signals all systems are go for sponsoring a family.

“The value of veterans in our community goes far beyond that which most of us realize,” says Avon Town Council chairman Dan Polhamus. “That same personal drive that leads one to commit to service to their country and military is one that frequently leads to a full life of community service. It’s no surprise to me to see our VFW post looking to give back to others, in this case Afghans who helped us in the war on terror.”

For clear security reasons, the identity of the family is being withheld for now.

Their arrival in Connecticut is anticipated in the next month or two, although Healy underscores that at this juncture there’s no way to know for sure.

“One of the most wonderful things I observed as the project took shape,” Healy notes, “is the happy diversity of the people who chose to get involved — we have team members who are Jewish, Christian, Muslim and completely secular. It’s certainly a refreshing contrast to what we read in the news.”

The hope is to find housing for the Afghan family in West Hartford near Bishop’s Corner, and employment team leader Brian Chapman has scouted for jobs in the area.

“When that possibility emerged, Brian returned with remarkable news,” says Healy, who has been part of the VFW for about a decade and has served as post commander since 2022.

“The people with whom he’d spoken almost unanimously responded that they’d happily work with anyone, whether they spoke English or not. … Neither of us was expecting that. Once again, it’s a testament to the astonishing generosity of our community and our willingness to work together to help people in need.”

Once the family arrives, volunteers will labor vigorously to secure employment, register children for school, arrange for English language tutoring and more — including American technology basics such as using an ATM, establishing phone service and connecting to the Internet.

“There’s an enormous amount of work to do in a very short period of time,” says Healy.

“A lot will happen very quickly — with the ultimate goal being to get the family securely independent as soon as possible.”

There is still time for new volunteers to step up and accomplish a variety of tasks. Donations are also still welcome — to learn about specific details, see the contact information below.

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"By resettling an Afghan family whose members put their lives on the line for us, we hope to demonstrate the finest traditions of both our military and civilian communities" — Tim Healy • VFW post commander

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“This project is an impactful and thoughtful way to reward and assist allies to our troops,” says Polhamus, a Democrat who moved to Avon from West Hartford in 2017. “It calls attention to a struggle that many of our younger veterans face, the desire to help our Afghan allies who sacrificed much on our behalf.”

Polhamus is serving his third term on the Avon Town Council and his second term as chairman. He was elected to the council in 2020 and was first elected chair by other council members in January 2022.

“My best wishes certainly go to the recipient family as they relocate to the region,” he says, “and as always my deepest thanks go to our veterans and VFW Post 3272.”

The VFW welcomes assistance from people who have been involved in projects like this before and from those who are new to such humanitarian work.

“If you’re a member of a faith community, your prayers are enormously welcome,” says Healy. “By resettling an Afghan family whose members put their lives on the line for us, we hope to demonstrate the finest traditions of both our military and civilian communities — I stand in humble awe and offer thanks to everyone.”

Via all the tangible nuts-and-bolts aspects of the refugee resettlement project, the volunteers are aiming to offer the Afghan family some essential intangible support and encouragement.

“We’d like to help the family simply to feel welcome and cherished,” observes Healy, who served in Vietnam with the Army in 1970 in the 196th Light Infantry Brigade.

“Some of our volunteers will be doing simple, friendly everyday things with the family — shopping, checking out the library and recreational facilities, and just exchanging stories and feelings. … Many volunteers become lifelong friends of some very grateful and happy families.”

As a result of the IRIS training, volunteers understand that refugees have endured considerable trauma— “so it’s essential that we help them feel safe and enjoy a sense of personal agency,” Healy adds.

“People who have done this before tell us there are few joys in life that match the exhilarating feeling of having snatched a family from the jaws of death,” he says, “and then of helping its members have peaceful and meaningful lives.” +

• For info about volunteering and donating:

Tim Healy • Commander • Avon VFW Post 3272

P.O. Box 297 • Avon, CT 06001


tim.healy@comcast. net

• Today Publishing covers community news that matters nationwide — focusing on the heart of Connecticut's Farmington Valley and aiming to record the underreported upside of the Valley's five core towns: Avon, Canton, Farmington, Granby and Simsbury

• Today Magazine editor-in-chief Bruce Deckert is an award-winning journalist

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