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Young members explore ways to reshape the VFW

The Lawrence VFW post’s new social spot is in the center of Massachusetts Street nightlife. Senior vice commander Johnathan Duncan of Kansas City prepared for a recent meeting of members.
The Lawrence VFW post’s new social spot is in the center of Massachusetts Street nightlife. Senior vice commander Johnathan Duncan of Kansas City prepared for a recent meeting of members. The Kansas City Star

Relaxing in a Lawrence courtyard at the new digs of Post 852, Iraq veterans Michael Siroky and Amanda Villa recalled the city’s former VFW hall.

Not many of their peers knew it existed. And when the two checked it out, they understood why.

“It was a round building, with no windows, out by the hospital,” said Villa, 30. “It looked as if the World War II veterans wanted to socialize in a bunker.”

So if they didn’t like it, get involved, a VFW Kansas Department commander urged her. It was up to the nation’s latest war veterans to change things.

Slowly and far between, younger veterans are reshaping their local VFW posts and practices, bringing glints of new life to an organization they respect.

“If our generation doesn’t do it,” said Villa, “who will?”

She joined a post committee looking to relocate. Boyfriend Siroky, 33, became post commander. And last year he cut the ribbon at the post’s new social spot in the center of Massachusetts Street nightlife.

The place is drawing dozens of new members, as are other VFW posts injected with youth.

At Post 8973 in New Orleans, membership was down to single digits in 2011. That’s when Marshall Hevron, a Marine reservist home from Iraq, met with a fellow Marine to ponder whether the post was worth saving.

“We either have to go big or go home,” the two agreed.

They set up a Facebook page and made appeals to every veteran they knew. They contacted newspapers. Monthly meetings of two grew to 50, 60, and in each meeting, about 10 percent new faces.

There would be no prayer. No canteen. No VFW caps unless you like wearing one.

(“I haven’t met anyone my age dying to wear the cap,” said Hevron, 36.)

Membership now surpasses 180.

The emphasis at Post 8973 turned to the VFW’s original mission of service and active camaraderie.

Taking on a renovation of the old hall, members decided to include an apartment for veterans needing a temporary home.

They buy supplies from veteran-owned businesses. And if they must drink, they’ll do it at a veteran-owned bar.

Around the nation, several posts under fresh leadership offer exercise equipment, child care service, video games and computer labs, says the VFW.

A post in Texas holds online meetings, as do some in Asia.

In Lawrence, Siroky said he “threw away the broken business model” of building a VFW hall large enough to be rented out for wedding receptions and funeral gatherings.

Rather, his post bought the former Bambino’s Italian Cafe for socializing — and a student bookstore next door for income.

The bookstore pays enough rent to keep the post from charging groups needing a quick kitchen and meeting space.

“It’s all about being a welcoming place,” said Villa.

The older veterans at Post 852 have warmed to the energy of the younger ones (who include new post commander Dan Parker, 31).

Vietnam vet Jerry Karr, 64, was among the shrinking cadre keeping the old post going, sometimes taking out personal loans to pay the bills.

“It’s not about my war, their wars or World War II,” Karr said. “We’re also here for the kids in third grade whose conflict hasn’t happened yet.

“They’ll be coming home decades from now and will need us.”

To reach Rick Montgomery, call 816-234-4410 or send email to rmontgomery@kcstar.com.

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