It’s Friday night at the Parkville Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7356. The bar is closed, but the place is bustling.
Dozens of kids have staked territory on the first floor of the building, fine-tuning wooden cars and making test runs on a track in preparation for their Cub Scout Pinewood Derby.
They are all excited about the overnight at the post after the race. Moms, dads and kids come in and out all evening, as comfortable at the VFW space as they would be at any church or school.
On a Sunday afternoon in Lenexa at the VFW Post 7397, the bar is open, but more people are gathering in the dining area for a cornbread and bean feed than around the bar.
Kids play at the pool table and search for the best dessert. The smoke-free event brings in members of several veterans groups, who in the past may have been at odds but are now brought together through an attitude that veterans helping veterans should not be an exclusive affair.
The smoky bars that once characterized a VFW stereotype are going the way of the past. While many posts across the nation are struggling to maintain membership, some posts are making moves toward a family-friendly atmosphere.
They are building a new kind of community within the organization’s long-term mission of shared service, experience and desire to give back to fellow veterans.
Historically, the VFW was organized as a fraternal organization with membership restricted to veterans who have been a part of a war campaign in a foreign country. Kansas has just under 20,000 members on the rolls. Missouri has just over 35,000. There are currently close to 7,000 posts, or local groups, worldwide, but the group reached a membership peak in the early 1990s.
During that time, World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans swelled the ranks to 2.3 million members nationwide. With many veterans aging, WWII veterans dying and fewer people choosing military service, membership has shrunk by nearly half. Today, the Kansas City-based national organization’s membership stands at 1.3 million.
The VFW is an organization in transition. While a huge wave of WWII and Korean War veterans opened VFW posts in nearly every small town and community in the country at one point, many posts have closed in recent years and others are a heartbeat away from shutting their doors.
But some are thriving with efforts to draw in younger veterans and embrace a new generation with a family friendly, inclusive and service-oriented environment that appeals to a younger generation.
Both Kansas and Missouri have seen post closures in recent years. Missouri had two posts close in 2015. Kansas has already lost three posts this year and will likely lose three more before summer.
Veterans see two main reasons for the decline. First, a cultural shift through the decades has meant many veterans have not returned to the small towns they grew up in after serving because job opportunities were not available. Second, there are fewer available veterans to join the VFW.
VFW National spokeswoman Randi Law says the organization estimates only about 1 percent of the total American population chooses to serve in the military.
Law says the post closures are not an immediate concern for the national organization.
“Our volunteerism, community service and advocacy efforts are as strong as ever. The VFW would rather have one extremely active and engaging post than 10 that are not,” Law said.
Current Kansas VFW Adjutant/Quartermaster Herbert Schwartzkopf has seen a cultural shift through the decades. Posts in places like Lenexa, Topeka and Leavenworth, which has the largest post in the state, have grown and are strong. Those places have a large veteran population base. In other places, like small Kansas towns where veterans could not find job opportunities after serving, the numbers are dwindling. Membership rolls have aged over time and there are no younger veterans to replace them.
“When the World War I veterans who are all gone and/or World War II veterans are gone, there is no one left to keep the post alive,” Schwartzkopf said.
Just as in the military a “post” refers to a place where soldiers are standing guard, the VFW posts include veterans looking out for other veterans. VFW groups do a lot to support active duty military personnel, such as sending care packages overseas to deployed units and looking out for the needs of families left behind by deployment. The Patriot’s Pen and Voice of Democracy essay scholarship contests also have become a yearly way for local posts to support both patriotism and education for students in the sixth through 12th grades.
But much of the work of the VFW is centered on looking out for fellow veterans. They work with members of the Student Veterans Association to help them get connected to mentors. They make sure veterans are aware of their VA benefits including health benefits and education benefits associated with the GI Bill.
They also look out for aging and disabled veterans. A Parkville VFW group recently did a work-day project on the home of a veteran in need, building a deck to make it a safer place for him to live. A Lenexa VFW group recently hosted a holiday party for the local National Guard Post.
Posts that are thriving are finding new and creative ways to make these connections happen.
Traditionally, many VFW posts opened bars known as “canteens” in their buildings, giving veterans a place to gather, drink a beer and tell war stories. While the canteens also met the altruistic need to raise money to support post activities, they also created a stereotype that VFWs were just smoky bars — a bar with a badge.
“For many years, cheap drinks at the post canteen was a great incentive to join the organization and network with fellow veterans. That’s changed,” Law said.
These days, younger veterans are more interested in connecting to job opportunities and finding ways to access their higher education and other VA benefits. They are focused on fitness and family. New technology also allows veterans to connect online, and some groups are finding that the opportunity to meet at civic buildings, community centers and private businesses allows them to give up their buildings and focus on service.
For example, service opportunities and camaraderie have brought a swell of younger veterans to the Shawnee Mission VFW Post 10552. The group does not own a building. While Post 10552 has been around for several decades, it has not had a building for 25 years. It has about 180 members and hosts a monthly meeting at the Shawnee Community Center.
Current Post Quartermaster Chris Pfister said they are trying to raise money to get a new building and build a Veterans Museum as a tribute to the older members of their post. They also want a space they can use for social things. “We’ve had an influx of younger members who want a building,” Pfister said. “We’d have a place for a game room with an Xbox younger veterans could come in and play with their kids.”
The group actively recruits younger members by doing things like hosting an informational booth at the Old Shawnee Days event.
Post Commander John Womer said service opportunities draw in many of their new veteran members. They set aside days to help other vets who may be suffering or help each other get connected to resources. They also have a program to donate good quality shoes to homeless veterans.
Lenexa Post 7397 has been around since the mid-1960s. As the post prepares to celebrate a 50th anniversary this summer, the group is thriving.
Leaders say their success is in part due to a decision to be intentionally inclusive. While the building belongs to the VFW, and the post there is one of the largest in Kansas, the group welcomes all veterans into their space.
“It’s a community of veterans helping veterans and enrich everyone’s lives regardless of whether they were in combat or not,” said Post Commander Mike Peterson.
Most veterans groups have restrictions for membership. Members of the Lenexa VFW wanted to be able to connect to as many vets as possible regardless of when, where or in what circumstances they served.
An American Legion Post, a Marine Corps League detachment, a Korean War Veterans Association group, and a Student Veterans Association group, and several auxiliary groups all have partnerships to use the VFW facility. Team Red White and Blue also uses the space for some gatherings.
Most recently the post welcomed an AmVets post chartered in October 2015.
“We try to encompass all vets in the Lenexa /Johnson county area,” Peterson said.
Air Force veteran and Lenexa resident Ben Schuerman brought his young family with him to a recent bean and cornbread fundraiser held by the new AmVet group.
He has been a member of the VFW for about a year and says the post often has events and community gatherings where his wife and three kids come along.
Schuerman says he first came for the monthly steak night and the canteen, but got involved because he remembered the value of the community service the VFW provided in his hometown in Nebraska. He wanted to make sure that tradition continued.
“We’d been to the Missouri State Fair two months before, and they had the American Legion riders and the VFW riders drive up,” Schuerman said. “I realized that generation, the Vietnam vets and Korean War vets, are getting older and younger vets needed to get involved.”
The Lenexa post focuses on community service. Past post commander Bruce Fischbach, who is also a past Kansas state commander, explained that the canteen still opens at 1 p.m. every day, but it is not the main draw any more.
“We’ve gotten to the point a lot of our members are a little older and typically a lot of our younger members are not looking for a place to go drink. They are looking for something to do. We’re doing things in the community,” Fischbach said.
Fischbach says it was the welcome that he appreciated when he and his wife arrived in 2004.
“The key thing was we were welcomed with open arms from our Vietnam veterans. The Vietnam veterans when they came back were not welcomed real well,” Fischbach said.
Vietnam veterans may be at least partially credited with driving much of the move toward inclusion in the VFW ranks. They remember the sting of fellow brothers in arms not being welcomed into some VFW posts after their return from duty.
“The change has been a conscious effort,” explains Lenexa resident and Vietnam veteran Bob Moyer. He joined the post 45 years ago. “Here we were all welcomed, but I had friends who went and tried to join other ones who were turned away.”
About 15 years ago, when a new war brought a new round of post- 9/11 combat veterans home from abroad, those Vietnam veterans were beginning to take over the leadership of many posts. Where that was the case, Moyer said they wanted to make sure younger vets felt welcomed and got the support they needed.
“We started preaching to become more welcoming to those walking in the door. That’s the night he (motioning to Fischbach) walked in with his wife. Then he just went on to become the state commander. That’s all,” Moyer said with a laugh.
Fischbach said the welcome his wife received was just as important. She had lived the military life beside him, and found common ground with others in the Ladies Auxiliary group.
Bob Bennett, 47, joined the VFW post in Parkville in 2007 while he was still serving on active duty. The commander of the post at the time knew Bennett was set to deploy and offered to help out while he was away.
“While I was deployed, they came and helped with lawn mowing and other kinds of manual labor at my house while I was in Iraq,” said Bennett, who was surprised by the VFW’s focus on younger veterans.
The Parkville Post 7356 was chartered in 1945 by World War II veterans. The first leader of the group was a business owner in Parkville, who always had a community-centered focus.
Twelve years ago, a post in North Kansas City folded into their group. That post’s land was sold, which helped Parkville pay off the mortgage and eased the constant pressure to have the canteen open to pay the bills. That is one reason the group can focus on making events more family friendly. It allows the group to open to the Boy Scouts instead of bar patrons on a Friday night.
While the wars the older and younger veterans served in are separated by decades, similarities draw veterans generations apart together.
Bennett has three children and is currently in the process of retiring from active duty. His 8-year-old son is in the Cub Scout pack that meets at the post.
The post also has a larger-than-average number of female veterans.
As the adjutant for the Parkville VFW Post, Tara Arteago is the person responsible for all communications and records for the group. The 28-year-old veteran is also the mother of a 1-year-old. It was her idea they add childcare at the meetings.
Arteago’s uncle, who had been the commander at a post in Illinois, had suggested she join the VFW after a 2010/2011 deployment to the Middle East. At first, she was not very active. Then, the leaders realized her training in public affairs would be helpful in the adjutant position and asked her to serve.
“They overwhelmingly welcomed me,” Arteago said.
She found a common bond, even with fellow members 50 years her senior: “It might be totally different generations, but the values, things like loyalty, duty and selfless service, the things we learn in the military, translate so easily to the things we do in the VFW.”
It’s not just the ‘ladies’ auxiliary anymore
The mission is the same, but after 100 years, the Veterans of Foreign Wars “Ladies” have officially changed with the times — opening the door for thousands of men to join the cause.
Until 2015, the VFW Auxiliary, which has its national headquarters in Kansas City, was known as the VFW Ladies Auxiliary. The VFW created the group in 1914 because there were a lot of women helping with the mission of the organization at the time. The Auxiliary only admitted female supportive family members of VFW members for those 101 years. The VFW Auxiliary group associated with the Veterans of Foreign Wars has changed its bylaws and name to accommodate all supportive family members — not just women.
That included wives, widows, daughters, granddaughters, mothers and grandmothers. They were mainly the wives of the combat veterans. The group has held a similar mission to the VFW in helping veterans with a focus on community service and the camaraderie built by family members who have a military member serving abroad.
A men’s version of the auxiliary is not nationally recognized. It was only available on a state by state basis. In this area, Kansas recognized the men’s auxiliary. Missouri did not.
For Maribeth Fischbach, joining the VFW Auxiliary in Lenexa was a great way to meet other women who understood her experiences. As the wife of a service member, she was a part of every move her husband faced in the military. She also lived overseas and learned to bond with others who had to send their spouse into hostile duty. When her husband joined the VFW, the Ladies Auxiliary seemed to be a perfect fit.
“You lose that support when you leave a military post,” Fischbach said. “When I got here, I could do the same things I did when we were in the military. I’m still able to support the veterans and other spouses. We know what they’ve been through. They can talk to us.”
She’s been a part of the group for about 10 years and is very supportive of the change.
“There were some women veterans who would not join the VFW until their husbands could join the auxiliary,” Fischbach said.
While female veterans have been joining the VFW for years, the organization only in 2014 scrubbed its charter of any language that referred only to men. At the 2015 national convention in Pittsburgh last summer, the Ladies Auxiliary decided to follow suit with gender-neutral language and a name change. It is now simply the VFW Auxiliary.
Cara Day, director of programs and communications for the VFW Auxiliary, said the change helps show that their organization understands the military family of today is different than that of 30, 40 or 50 years ago.
“In the military family today, there is often a male spouse who stays home while the female service member goes to Iraq or Afghanistan. He needs that same support. It is no longer just the women who are staying at home. Once we started pointing out that fact, then the light bulb went on,” Day said.
Men were waiting in the wings to join. Eligibility was opened to men on Aug. 21, 2015. About 10,000 men have been accepted. The VFW Auxiliary currently has about 460,000 members nationwide.
Karen Ridder, Special to The Star