Stuart Austin knows what it’s like to dedicate your life to serving your country and need a helping hand when your service comes to an end.
Austin, a Federal Way resident, joined the U.S. Navy after graduating from Renton High School in 1987. His grandfather served in World War II and his father was in the British Army.
“I’d hear war stories at every family gathering,” said Austin, the senior vice of the Federal Way Veterans of Foreign Wars Post.
He was stationed on the USS Tarawa (LHA-1), serving for 3 and a half years and in the Gulf War. He was injured on the ship, ending his active duty service, otherwise Austin says he would’ve stayed on the ship until it was decommissioned.
Earlier in his career, he was in a helicopter trying to save three other men when it exploded. The incident left him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in addition to bodily injuries.
“I remember it like it happened yesterday, I remember every detail of that,” he said. “There were a lot of soldiers that went through battle and went through things they didn’t want to. They saw things they didn’t want to see.”
Austin became a welder, then joined the military reserves in 2001. When Sept. 11 happened, his unit was activated four months later and sent to Saudi Arabia.
He was there for nine months when Taliban members cornered him and several others; Austin was shot in the chest. Though his vest stopped the bullet, it did crack his sternum. He was medically discharged from the military as a Second Class Petty Officer, “and my career stopped there.”
The following months contained medical and psychological evaluations, physical pain which eased to healing in time, and relying on a network of helping hands.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) is a nonprofit organization of veterans and military service members providing resources, assistance and advocacy supports to veterans and their families.
King County over 20 VFW Posts. Nearby cities have several Posts each, but Federal Way has only one.
VFW Post 2886 maintains a membership of about 128 members and meets every second Tuesday of the month. The Federal Way Post raises money for veterans assistance and projects, such as a Gold Star Family memorial to be built at the Tahoma National Cemetery.
“We’re easily available, our doors are always open,” Austin said. “You’d be surprised how many posts are in the immediate area.”
Throughout the years, the Federal Way VFW Post has served 127 people — helping them with Veterans Affairs services, medical benefits, and more.
“I believe those 127 people wouldn’t have had that help if it wasn’t for us being visible,” he said. “We might not be the biggest, but for veterans, we’re a vital part … we do a vital service for them.”
Post Quartermaster Dick Whipple, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1960-1968, said a veteran’s pride often delays them asking for help.
“That’s where we run into a problem,” he said. The Post relies on other members and community networks to connect local veterans with their services, even for something as simple yet meaningful as holiday goods baskets.
Whipple joined the Federal Way VFW in 1980 and was mentored by former Quartermaster Thomas Burke.
Previously, meetings were held at local libraries until the pandemic closed most facilities. The Federal Way group has been meeting in Whipple’s garage and back patio for several months, spoiled by home-baked treats from his wife of 59 years. Soon, the group will transition to a new meeting space in Federal Way.
When navigating his own transition journey from the military, Austin said he values the Post’s work because he — along with hundreds of others — was once in the very same place as newly discharged members.
“I see how valuable they are and how knowledgeable,” he said. “We were in their boots one time, so why turn away? I help them.”
For more information on services or to join a VFW Post 2886 meeting, call Dick Whipple at 253-838-1672.