Legionnaire pays it forward once more

Legionnaire Joe DeLaCruz brought relief to veterans and their families in Moore, Okla., immediately following the devastating tornado that ripped through the small community in May of 2013, helping them with American Legion National Emergency Fund (NEF) grants and Temporary Financial Assistance (TFA). His volunteer service to veterans continued after the tornado as a veterans service officer at the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center, as an American Legion VA Volunteer Service representative, and as the Department of Oklahoma’s disaster relief chairman and TFA coordinator. Helping veterans has been his way of paying it forward.

“I got help from The American Legion and VA when I needed it, and now I give help when veterans need it,” said DeLaCruz, a member of Post 111 in Edmond. “It’s veterans helping veterans. It’s paying it back.”

At 81 years old, Delacruz is cutting back on his volunteer efforts due to health issues stemming from Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam, relinquishing his role as a VA service officer and his roles at the department level. But before stepping away from his daily job at the VA, DeLaCruz had one more opportunity to pay it forward.

Post 111 Adjutant Ken Wyatt nominated DeLaCruz for First Fidelity Bank’s Pay It 4ward award. Upon receiving the $400 cash award at the VA in front of Legion colleagues, including Department of Oklahoma Adjutant Carl Kuykendall, Delacruz immediately handed it to Kuykendall to help other veterans in need. Watch a video of it here.

“When I accepted the award I accepted on behalf of every veteran that is a volunteer in The American Legion,” DeLaCruz said. “I don’t feel that I’m doing something that only I can do. Anybody can do it that has the time.”

Prior to television station KFOR capturing DeLaCruz receiving the award, Wyatt told the TV crew that he would turn the money over to The American Legion.

“Joe has done so much for veterans," Wyatt said. "For all the work he has done, I think he deserved the award. He is a go-getter and a valuable asset to not just our post, but statewide.”

Wyatt emphasized that DeLaCruz’s passion for helping veterans has put the Department of Oklahoma in second place for the number of NEF and TFA grants issued by an American Legion department. After the Moore tornado, DeLaCruz was on the ground every day working out of his van, helping eligible veterans and their families fill out NEF and TFA grants. “The American Legion had my back so I was able to do a lot of things during the Moore tornados,” DeLaCruz said.

He too personally hand delivered every grant check issued, “never asking for anything in return,” said Post 111 Commander Robert Willis. “Joe is always available when called upon to provide those in need with a helping hand. Many times Joe renders funds from his own account, not even seeking reimbursement. He is veteran’s veteran.”

DeLaCruz was also named the Oklahoma American Legion Veteran of the Year for 2015 and was nominated a few years ago for the Legion’s VA Volunteer Services Worker of the Year Award, but he said the greatest award of all has been “the satisfaction of helping our veterans.”

DeLaCruz is still volunteering from his home when his assistance is needed, answering calls about NEF and TFA grants, or VA benefits. He’s also having his wife drive him to the VA once a week to visit the veterans and ask if they need anything, such as toiletries, socks, clothes, etc. He started the Adopt-A-Ward program where Legion posts sponsor a ward at the VA and provide comfort items to the patients that they otherwise would not receive.

“I walk in and say, ‘I’m Joe with The American Legion. I’m your ambassador,''" he said. "They tell the nurses what they need, and I work with the posts to get it to them.

“I still have a great yearning to continue serving, but unfortunately my doctors feel it would not help my well-being. I miss it. I miss it a lot.”