By Michael P. Mauer
Three Walter R. Kuczma scholarships were presented by Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 914 Intrepid to graduating seniors during the May 22 West Mifflin Area High School convocation ceremony. Elena Piel was selected for the top award, while Cassandra Nickelson rated second. Third place was taken by Jenny Rohach.
Each scholarship awardee received a recognition certificate from the post, as well as cash awards of $500, $300 and $200 respectively. The students competed by writing an essay on the assigned patriotic theme, ‘Why My Vote Matters.’ Faculty members of West Mifflin Area High School selected the winners.
For graduating seniors Piel and Rohach, these are the second scholarships received from VFW Post 914. The West Mifflin students each won $100 participating in the post’s Voice of Democracy competition this past year.
“The members of the post are extremely proud to be able to help young students in our community with their education,” said scholarship organizer and VFW Post 914 Quartermaster, Gary Ruston. “We’ve been doing this now for more than a quarter century, and hope to continue this tradition for many, many years to come.”
The West Mifflin VFW scholarship program is named after the post’s founder and first commander, Walter R. Kuczma. Raised on Pittsburgh’s South Side during the Great Depression, he enlisted into the United States Navy during World War II at the age of 17, and served aboard the USS Intrepid – the battle-hardened aircraft carrier for which VFW Post 914 is named.
While aboard the Intrepid, Kuczma worked on a flight crew that fused bombs and loaded combat aircraft during the largest naval engagement in history – the Battle of Leyte Gulf. During the attack, Kuczma watched as 73 shipmates on the ship’s hangar deck were killed by a Japanese kamikaze. He was fortunate enough to be behind a metal pillar that protected him.
Eventually settling in West Mifflin, Kuczma continued his military service by enlisting for 36 years with the Pennsylvania Air National Guard. He rose to the rank of Master Sergeant before retiring. He died April 17, 2010 at the age of 83.
Among the awards and honors Kuczma received was his induction into the Southwestern Veterans Center Hall of Fame in 2006. He is one of three members of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 914 Intrepid West Mifflin to be so honored.
As the post’s first commander, Kuczma assisted with parades, support of local youth athletic teams, the unit’s first Pearl Harbor Remembrance Ceremony and other VFW activities that helped the post earn All American honors. He was also instrumental in establishing post backing for the West Mifflin Area High School Titan Marching Band and the Air Force Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps program.