Following the installation of a for the , comes the welcoming of the post’s first female member.
Yuri Karasz was inducted into the post by members at a ceremony on August 6 at the , making her the first female member since the legion was started in Mineola in 1922.
“I try to think of myself as being in the 21st century and I’m trying to say ‘look, I look at the TV and I see men and women getting back from the battlefield,” legion commander Carl Marchese said. “I see PSA’s about a woman minus a leg or minus an arm or minus whatever kind of maiming has taken place on their bodies and they are to be accorded the same respect men are accorded when they come back. If I had daughters and they came back like that I’d want them to be given the same respect.”
Karasz is a former officer in the transportation corps. who only happened to stumble upon the legion by a literal run-in with Gabe Parajos, one of the post’s officers, who was passing out fliers about other races to her local road runners group.
“He didn’t know I was a veteran,” Karasz said. “I never thought to mention it, but after a while he found out that I am a actually a veteran and I hadn’t joined any organizations so he brought me to the VFW organization and I met a bunch of people there and I think Carl was there too. The veterans in Mineola, they commingle quite a bit so eventually the word got around to Carl that I existed and we met then and the rest is history.”
After their meeting, Marchese and Karasz made an agreement that if he were to become the commander of the post, she would be it’s first female member.
“Yuri said that if I became commander, she would join, I’m quoting out of context, but words to that effect,” Marchase said.
“He did and pretty much the following month I decided to come out and get inducted into the American Legion,” she confirmed. “It was surprising that there were no other females before me.”
Karasz also was a ROTC teacher at Siena, where Marchese’s son attended (though not while Karasz was on staff), as well as at RPI and SUNY Albany. She obtained her masters in biochemistry and biophysics at RTI, using it to teach chemistry to freshmen at West Point. After completing her required service time of nine-and-a-half years, she followed her then-husband out of the military after he finished service, eventually starting over on Long Island after divorce with her two children, ages 14 and 11.
“Right now to me having balance in most important,” she said, adding of her children that “they take up a lot of my time. It’s just good to be where I’m at right now.”
When Karasz came forward to apply for membership, the usual background check of her service papers, verification that dates of service matched requirements to join the American Legion, and service – she was stationed in Mannheim, Germany and Fort Eustis, VA, the headquarters for the transportation corps – were completed.
“Here’s a woman who’s got a distinguished military career, she was a captain in the army, a West Point graduate, a woman apparently of many capabilities because – she’ll tell you in her own words what her life involves now – but she’s evidently bright, having gone to the military academy, graduating from there and then having taught there, taught at several colleges in the ROTC program and now I understand she has a career locally,” Marchese said.
Currently Karasz is a recruiter and manager for trainee services for NYCOMEC, a consortium that seeks hospital members across New York and New Jersey and which is affiliated with NYCOM medical school, which falls under NYIT, and also affiliated with Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine to recruit doctors for various residency programs.
“We start up residency programs and we fill it with medical school students from across the country. We’re right in between the medical schools and the... AOA (American Osteopathic Association),” she said. “Once they become members, we start up residency programs,” such as osteopathic and DOs – board certified physicians that study how bones, muscles and nerves are interconnected.
Karasz doesn’t let the fact that she will be the only woman amongst a group of men intimidate her, in fact, she seems to welcome the experience, comparing it to her time in the armed services.
“I’m so used to being amongst men – at the academy they were only about 12 percent female – so I was surrounded by guys,” she said. “I’m very comfortable with guys, working with the male gender. In fact that was one of the more surprising things was when I went back to work here on Long Island... and I was surrounded by women. To me, joining the VFW or attending the VFW meetings where its all guys or the American Legion, it’s just like second nature – oh, it’s back in the army again, that type of thing. It’s not even the gender; they’ve lived life for so many years that they just know so much and it’s just to me, that bring me value and that I’m not wasting my time sitting there with a bunch of just guys... these people have a very rich history; every one of them has stories to tell.”
For Marchese, Karasz’s induction is something which he hopes will help to drive other women to join as well as provide a boost to dwindling membership and an infusion of younger veterans.
“What I’m hoping to do is when the public sees that we have a woman as a member that it could work as a magnet to other female veterans that are out there to join our post,” he said. “Also the fact that we’re getting a younger member would also help in our own post’s demographics where a lot of members are older, a lot of them are WWII vets, Korean vets and like myself, from the Vietnam era. None of us are getting any younger. We’re trying to get the younger people in and I’m hoping to talk to other veterans’ organizations that are in the area, invite them to join us at one of our meetings and see how they feel about joining the American Legion, assuming they qualify. I’m trying to build up the numbers in our post; they’ve been diminishing in recent years. I’m trying to keep the atmosphere conducive to the friendliness among the members... I encourage input. I’m not a one-man band; I’ve got to rely on people.”
Marchese did not have an exact number of members, but placed the total in the 30s, with 14-15 members being present at the most recent meeting.
“I can’t answer for the philosophies of membership leadership of years gone by,” he said of the decision not to bring in female membership before this point. “If I had to guess I’d say maybe they felt more comfortable with an all-male assemblage; I don’t know, I’m guessing, that’s only speculation on my part.”
Karasz also sees the part that she plays in expanding the legion’s local outreach to women.
“I’m sure there are plenty of female veterans out there on Long Island, but nobody’s really taken an interest to get out there. It’s only one evening meeting per month, that’s it, just one meeting, it doesn’t take too much time out of your life to go to one meeting per month,” she said. “It’s not just helping yourself, but it’s helping other folks within the community that they might know to spread the word about what’s going on with veterans. They’re so much fun to talk to, they’re so knowledgeable, so smart; they give me a history lesson every time I talk to them.”