Winchendon post office halts longtime charity drive for veterans

WINCHENDON – Bette J. Mire is passionate when it comes to supporting veterans. So when she was told by a postal worker that the Veterans of Foreign Wars Auxiliary she volunteers for could not distribute poppies for veterans at the post office on Central Street as they have for more than 60 years, she took it to heart.

Ms. Mire’s father, Herman C. Vieweg, served in World War II. Her husband, Saul Mire, 79, is a Vietnam veteran who served in the U.S. Army for 34 years. The VFW started poppy distribution, she says, at the end of World War I as a symbol of freedom and to show support of veterans. Each year in Winchendon, the VFW and American Legion auxiliaries take turns distributing the poppies at the post office and a grocery store downtown, she said.

But this year, the Winchendon post office is enforcing regulations - in place for years - that restrict solicitations of any kind on government property, Ms. Mire said. She and others argue that they are not selling the poppies, just distributing them for voluntary donations.

“Some people don’t give anything,” Ms. Mire said. “Another person might walk by and give $20. Some people might just give a dollar.”

According to VFW.org, since 1922, the Buddy Poppy has been the VFW’s official memorial flower, representing the blood shed by American service members and serving as a reminder that “the VFW will not forget their sacrifices.” Disabled, hospitalized and aging veterans make the paper flowers and ship them out for distribution to posts and ladies’ auxiliaries, it says. The VFW pays the disabled veterans for the work, and all proceeds from distribution are used for veterans, their dependents and orphans of veterans.

The Winchendon postmaster did not return calls for comment.

Steve Doherty, head of corporate communications in the Northeast for the U.S. Postal Service, said the practice was never allowed.

Nonpostal or charity sales on the grounds of any post office is prohibited by federal law, he said, including organizations or individuals soliciting, polling, demonstrating or distributing literature on postal property, “regardless of how well-intentioned their organization’s mission may be.”

“We apologize for any confusion this policy may have caused in Winchendon,” Mr. Doherty said in an email.

When asked why the regulation was being enforced this year but not for the previous 60 years, he said, “I wasn’t aware that it was previously allowed, but I can’t speculate on why a former postmaster may have done something.”

Mr. Doherty added that the postal service has always been a strong supporter of veterans, who make up more than 18 percent of the agency’s workforce.

“In addition, over the years we’ve issued more than 100 stamps honoring every branch of the service, women in the military, Medal of Honor recipients and our veterans,” he said. “Our newest series continues a grateful nation’s way of honoring the bravery and achievements of members of the U.S. Armed Forces through its Service Cross Medals. Stamps featuring these decorations for valor from all military branches will be unveiled on Memorial Day at the World Stamp Show in New York.”

Ms. Mire said she is disappointed that the post office took the stance not to allow it this year. Subsequently, the Board of Selectmen did not approve a permit for the VFW auxiliary to distribute the poppies at the post office, she said. Instead, they are doing it at a bank downtown and the grocery store.

“It’s just another kick in the teeth for our veterans,” she said, crying. “We have enough trouble having the public support the veterans, now the government is going against them. That is how I feel. I don’t think people realize what they (the veterans) do for us. It’s disgraceful, I think.”

She said as an auxiliary member, she is not supposed to share any political views or take sides.

“I’m just here for the veterans,” she said. “All we want to do is make sure the veterans are supported - the old and the new. We have to realize they are still coming home.”

Coral M. Grout, a local historian for the American Legion and past president, and also national junior activities chairman, said distributing the poppies in Winchendon at the post office was always a community event. Her father, Charles E. Grout, who served during World War II in the U.S. Air Force and was also director of veteran services for years for Winchendon and eight other communities, used to stand on the steps of the post office and distribute the poppies, she said. Postal workers would bring chairs out for them to sit on at the top of the steps and provide them coffee, she said, and would invite volunteers inside the lobby if it was raining.

She said she was standing in line at the post office earlier this month and overheard the woman at the counter tell Ms. Mire they would have to stand on the sidewalk this year, not on the steps.

“I asked when it changed and she said, ‘That is the regulation,’ ” Ms. Grout said. “I told her that we’ve been doing poppies here for over 60 years. All of a sudden we are not welcome. We’re banished to the sidewalk. We don’t sell – people donate – and it all goes back to the community to our veterans.”

The donations help pay for things such as Christmas and Thanksgiving baskets for needy veterans, she said, and a barbecue at the America Legion or VFW for veterans.

“It is such a community-oriented thing,” she said.

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