R.I.P. American veterans halls

Veterans of Foreign Wars clubs are emptying at an alarming rate. Where did the lobby go wrong?

Published September 30, 2012 3:00PM (EDT)

  (Brad Horrigan)
(Brad Horrigan)

This article originally appeared on Narratively.

Narratively Michael Chirieleison, whom nobody calls Mike and everybody calls Mickey, is 63 years old. When he was 18, he was thrown out of the Green Beret, for fighting. Unfazed, Mickey volunteered for the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, with which he would serve in Vietnam. “I thought it’d be like Italy or something,” he says of the war. “It turned out to be something completely different.” Today, Mickey is commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5195 on Van Brunt Street, in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Sal Meglio, a big, gray-haired man in silver wire frames, who once filled glass bottles with tea and sold them for whiskey on the Japanese black market—and who also works the bar at Post 5195—sometimes calls Chirieleison Mick. Smoke has so graveled Sal’s voice that his words emerge sounding squeezed, as if his diaphragm has relinquished them grudgingly. As if from a man gut-shot in battle. When he shouts, “Mick-ey! Phone!” above the din of the bar, one has the sense of a mortal emergency in progress.

It was not long ago that financial impropriety on the part of the previous leadership threatened Post 5195 with collapse. Nick Marra, a World War II veteran and Red Hook native, who has been a member here for decades, tells me that Mickey is “the guy that saved the place, single-handed.” Mickey has seen to the installation of cherry-stained oak floors and a refurbished bar. The bathrooms, too, have been spruced up, to the palpable relief of all concerned. Patriotic decorations made of cardboard and tissue paper hang from the low ceilings, and Mickey’s medals, which include a Bronze Star, adorn a wall lined with electronic slots. (A handwritten note demands that patrons call Sal before futzing with the machines.) A digital jukebox keeps up a steady blare, and Pete Waldman, a local artist in grubby Carhartt overalls, who on a recent afternoon was enjoying boilermakers at the bar, says customers have been known to do some dancing.

The crowd skews middle-aged and older. Men predominate and drink one-dollar Budweisers; the women, brassy-voiced and bronzed, prefer Corona or iced white wine drawn warm from boxes of Almaden. Mondays and Tuesdays are sleepy. By five o’clock on Saturday, though, bar stools are hard-won, and smoke from perhaps a dozen lit cigarettes soaks the air. The mood recalls a large family gathering, and for even the rare stranger, buying one’s own drink can prove difficult. Red-faced men, fresh from fishing boats, troop through with white fillets in plastic sandwich bags, and neighbors drop by with baccala—the Nordic-style salt cod that has been embraced by Italian-Americans.

As commander, Mickey’s responsibilities extend from ordering beer, to organizing fundraisers, to keeping permits and wiring up to date. A slight man, with a punch-drunk smile and twinkling eyes, he favors blue jeans and white undershirts that highlight his deep tan and the corded sinews of his forearms. When Mickey tells me, “Guys in their 70s and 80s could never do what I do,” I get the sense that he doesn’t quite believe he will continue to age, that he will ever be so old.

At its peak, Post 5195 boasted more than 500 members. Mickey remembers that after he returned from Vietnam, in the 1970s, World War II and Korean War veterans routinely stood five-deep at the bar for ten-cent beers. It would be some thirty years before Mickey, who went to work as an insulator at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, joined the post himself. “I forgot I was in the service. I gave my uniform away and stuck my medals in a drawer and never looked at ‘em again. You weren’t allowed to be in the military back then,” he says, recalling without bitterness the unsympathetic homecomings that often greeted Vietnam servicemen. Since its heyday, Mickey estimates, the post has lost 430 members. Of the seventy or so who remain, many no longer live in the area and return only occasionally. New membership inquiries are few, and a majority come from men in their 60s, rather than veterans just back from Iraq and Afghanistan. The post’s quartermaster, Juri Tassa, who operated a riverboat in Vietnam, is among its newest inductees.

Who, then, are all these men, playing cards, watching the races, telling off-color jokes at the bar? Mickey says most are neighborhood people. Some are veterans, but not many, and even fewer are members of the VFW. Juri, a thin-haired man with a youthful but weathered face, seems sure that troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will revitalize their ranks. Responsibility for membership records and recruitment lies primarily with the quartermaster, and he intends to create a website to attract young veterans. Juri’s plans are vague, though, and he seems surer of more tangible projects. He speaks eagerly about a flagpole the post donated recently to a nearby church, and of picnics on the horizon and fundraisers gone by. It is difficult, admittedly, amid the warmth and clamor of the bar, to get down at the mouth about the future, to sense the creep of extinction. “No one,” Juri tells me with shining eyes, “is afraid to hug another person in here.”

*   *   *

In December 1997, Fortune magazine ranked the VFW 16th—just behind the United States Chamber of Commerce—on its list of the “mightiest lobbying groups” in the land. (A second Veterans Service Organization, the American Legion, placed 23rd.)  The ranking, known as the Fortune Power 25, resulted from a poll of nearly 2,200 Washington insiders, including members of Congress, their staffs and senior White House officials. In the preceding decade, the VFW had celebrated more than a dozen legislative victories. Among the highlights were the New GI Bill Continuation Act, which removed the expiration date from the military’s educational assistance program; the Department of Veterans Affairs Act, which elevated the VA to the Cabinet level; and the long-overdue Agent Orange Act, which granted the Department of Veterans Affairs power to classify conditions like respiratory cancers, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease as presumptively caused by Agent Orange—the herbicide used during the Vietnam War to defoliate jungles—and to compensate Veterans accordingly. (That Agent Orange posed serious health risks had been known since the 1960s and largely ignored by the government and by the companies responsible for the compound’s manufacture; recent fiscal pressures have invited fresh questions about the extent of the Agent Orange Act’s generosity.)

The VFW’s appearance on Fortune’s list a decade and a half ago, alongside such familiar heavyweights as the NRA, AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and the AARP, coincided closely with its membership peak of 2.2 million. Jerry Newberry, the VFW’s director of communications, says that in the years leading up to the mid-90s, the lifecycles of three generations of veterans overlapped to yield a kind of perfect storm, flushing a surge of new members into the ranks. Those who’d served in World War II were largely retired, and veterans of Korea and Vietnam had established families and careers, enabling them to turn their attention to volunteerism.

It wouldn’t last. By May of 2001, the last time Fortune conducted the Power 25 poll, the VFW—and the American Legion, too—had vanished from Fortune’s rankings. In the intervening years, the VFW’s membership has hemorrhaged uncontrollably. Today, their national ledger book holds only 1.4 million names, less than two-thirds of its size fifteen years ago.

James Durkin, a bearded man with an upstate twang, is VFW commander for New York State. “Part of my job,” he says, “is working with actuaries to figure out how many guys I’m likely to lose over the course of the year.” Durkin estimates that in 2011, New York City suffered a net loss of 620 members, despite taking on 610 new enlistees. Today, statewide membership has fallen from 100,000 to 65,000, and 45 percent of those who remain are 65 or older. Juri Tassa’s impulse to advertise Post 5195 online, Durkin says, is reflected in policy: “Training for posts across the state includes teaching them to communicate the way today’s veterans communicate.” Facebook, Skype, Twitter, and even Wii Bowling have been brought to bear. It has been enough only to slow the bleeding. “We’re not bringing them in as quick as they’re dying off,” Durkin says. “They’re going to school full time, getting settled down. We get them mostly in their 30s and 40s. At that age they begin to realize the benefits we won for them. That it was the stroke of the pen that gave it to them and the stroke of a pen that can take it away.”

The VFW has never spent much money on lobbying. Annual membership dues are a modest $35 (though one can become a “life member” for about $50), and proceeds from fundraising go toward programs to assist veterans and their families. The group relies instead on the ballot box threat of their numbers, and, as Newberry says, on the insistent sound of “hundreds of members pounding” on legislators’ doors.

Marvin Jeffcoat, a Gulf War veteran and the former commander of a post in Woodside, Queens, is chairman of the state legislative committee. Jeffcoat is rigidly precise, peremptory and intimidating, even over the phone. Among other priorities, he is currently focused on a law that would mandate training for police officers in coping with Traumatic Brain Injury (an ailment common among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans that can cause slurred speech and erratic behavior), and the Veteran Owned Business Enterprise Act, which would grant to veterans bidding for state contracts the same preference accorded minority business owners.

“You wouldn’t think that [veterans] would be a group that had to agitate for its needs,” says Jeffcoat, “but we were behind the creation of the VA. Without us, you lose veterans’ advocacy.”

Several times a year, VFW representatives accompanied by a cohort of uniformed colleagues address politicians in Albany. “We put on our green hats,” Durkin says.  “And we let them know what we think.” Newberry does not like to talk about how many fewer green hats there are these days, how many fewer fists to demand entry, pound tables in indignation. “Look, I don’t have a crystal ball,” he tells me. “We’re still strong. They listened to us [in the past] and they still listen to us.” James Durkin is less insistent: “Maybe when we went up to Albany with 100,000 members, our voice was heard louder than it is now.”

*   *   *

A beige brick structure, with spools of razor wire and a towering flagpole atop its flat roof, VFW Post 7096 squats like a bunker in the shadow of the Gowanus Expressway, just east of New York Bay, in Sunset Park. To its north sprawls the Brooklyn Indoor Sports Center, an unsightly warehouse of batting cages and arcades that swallows most of the block. To the south stands a tall gray building bearing billboard advertisements that look onto the elevated roadway. The latter belongs to CBS, and has lately caused commander Ken Dunn much consternation. The station does not maintain the building, he says—keeping the property solely for the advertising space—and shows up only to swap billboards.

Effectively abandoned, the structure has bred rot and termites, which, Ken says, migrated through the walls and caused the partial collapse of his ceiling. Frustrated by CBS’s refusal to pay for the damage, Ken recently filed suit. In response, the company, which has long leased air rights from the post to ensure clear sight lines between their billboards and expressway travelers, has intimated that they will no longer do so. They count it unlikely, perhaps, that Ken will add a second story. CBS has also asked that he remove his rooftop American flag; they’ve decided that it obstructs their ads.

At 60, Ken is thick through the middle, with skinny arms and wet bulbous eyes. A reticent former marine with little patience for politics—for complications, really, of any kind—he seems an unlikely font of frivolous lawsuits. He uses the word “broad” as a noun, with neither irony nor malice. “I’m not concerned with national issues,” he tells me in the cave-like gloom of his post, “I’m concerned with the local veteran.” Some days Ken spends at the post virtually alone; others see clusters of veterans gathered at the end of the bar, or at the octagonal table near the room’s center. On a recent afternoon, a stocky bald-headed man told a small group about a European vacation during which he felt compelled to make corrective use of his fist on a bothersome mime.

“Getting another number,” Ken says, “is secondary to getting [veterans] the help that they need. I can’t stand out on the street and ask: ‘Are you a veteran? Are you a veteran?’” For Ken, who fought in Vietnam and has been a member here since 1970, the post, with its dirty linoleum floor and its old-fashioned barbershop aroma of smoke and cologne, is above all, “a place where [members] can gather as veterans and kick their stories to each other. It’s a place where they can feel good about themselves. The average person in the street can’t relate to what you say. They look at you like you’re nuts.”

Ken says that in Vietnam, if you wanted a beer, there was only Budweiser, and it was warm. He makes a sour face when I order one. Ken’s never been much of a drinker, though, and the dark liquid in his plastic cup, which I’d taken for an afternoon rum-and-Coke, turns out to be just Pepsi. He’s not much on bars either. “I never wanted to deal with the bullshit that went on in them,” he says. One night, though, soon after returning from Vietnam, Ken consented to let his friends drag him uptown to a club in Manhattan: “When I got back [from the war], none of my old clothes fit. So I had to go out in uniform.” Standing in a ‘70s New York nightspot—in what can only have seemed after jungle combat a perversely alien world—Ken noticed an attractive young woman hurrying toward him from across the room. He smiles at the memory, a fondness touched with lingering confusion. “This broad comes up to me and starts hugging me and kissing me.” But after a moment, the shock of recognition—or rather, the lack—broke the woman’s embrace, and she backed swiftly away. “She thought I was her boyfriend,” Ken says, shaking his head. “I guess in uniform, we all looked the same to them.”

*   *   *

In a way, the history of American foreign conflict begins in Brooklyn. It was there, in New York Harbor, that the USS Maine was built and commissioned in September 1895. The Maine, a 7,000-ton armor-plated vessel, 324 feet long and abristle with cannon, was the second American battleship. A photograph stored in the Library of Congress from the day of her launch shows a sea of mustachioed men in black top hats gathered on the dock where she would make berth. The number “13” glows prophetically in white paint on the giant blade of her keel, which looms like an axe above the spectators’ heads. When the Maine exploded under mysterious circumstances on the evening of February 15, 1898 in Havana Harbor, taking 266 sailors with her to the bottom, hostilities between the United States and Spain became imminent, leading to the Spanish-American War.

As the brief clash drew to a close in the fall of 1898, Theodore Roosevelt, who would later join the VFW, issued a warning in a farewell address to his Rough Riders: “The world will be kind to you for about 10 days; until then everything you do will be considered right…For just about ten days you will be overpraised, overpetted; then you will find that the hero-business is over for good and all.”

Though the benefits afforded Union soldiers by the Disability Pension Act of 1890—which had been secured by the Grand Army of the Republic, an early veterans’ pressure group—extended to returnees from Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico, none were offered to those who had not sustained injury. No vocational assistance was forthcoming for troops whose vacant jobs had been filled, and a scant two-month’s pay was dispensed. The medical benefits proved insufficient and the disabled languished, unable to provide for their families. “The men left in excellent spirits,” Dr. Nicholas Senn, Chief Surgeon of the United States Volunteers, wrote in a letter. “Most of them returned mere shadows of themselves…Many of them are wrecks for life, others candidates for a premature grave and hundreds will require most careful attention and treatment before they regain the vigor they lost in Cuba.”

In September 1899, James Romanis, a soft-spoken pharmacy worker from Ohio who’d fought at the Battle of El Caney in Cuba—which the New York Times likened to “a living furnace” at which Cerberus had “aroused himself to growl at his ancient foe”—placed an ad in the Columbus Dispatch. A meeting was announced to veterans of the Spanish-American War, “for the purpose of effecting an organization…for mutual benefit in getting pension, claims, etc.” A few days later, Francis Dubel shut his tailor shop on East Main Street in Columbus early to welcome the fourteen men who gathered to establish what would become the Veterans of Foreign Wars. In 1903, the group tasked a legislative committee with preparing a pension bill. The public found it unreasonable, though, despite some 280,000 veterans of the Spanish-American conflict in their midst, to devote funding to servicemen in the absence of ongoing war; the VFW did not score its first significant win until 1918, in the form of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act. The new legislation was celebrated from the group’s Manhattan headquarters, a narrow colonnaded high-rise at 32 Union Square they’d occupied two years earlier.

In Mach 1924, the VFW and the American Legion led a parade of several thousand through Brooklyn Heights, past Borough Hall, in support of bonus payments for World War I veterans. Unless they’d been injured, servicemen had up until then received no benefits. The bill passed over Calvin Coolidge’s veto and despite protestations from industry titans like Pierre Du Pont, who felt a tax cut was more important.

World War II, and the GI Bill of 1944, marked a change in the national attitude toward public obligation to veterans, says the historian and former Dartmouth President James Wright. The bill was at the time the largest entitlement program in history. Still, it did not emerge unprompted from the goodness of the nation’s collective heart. “The [American] Legion’s lobbying during the war was more influential than any that observers at the time recalled from any group,” Wright wrote in his book “Those Who Have Borne the Battle.” “Legion officials even raised implicit threats: ‘God knows what will happen’ when these trained killers came home and discovered that there was no provision to enable them to recover the lives they had lost.” In emphasizing the ascent of veterans’ needs in the public consciousness, Wright notes that the VA, which was in 1940 the fifth largest federal agency, had by 2000 become second only to the Department of Defense.

In a 1999 interview with the New York Times, Tom Kissell, then the VFW national membership director, attributed falling membership to a particular syndrome: “Kids today just aren’t joiners.” The anecdote appeared a year later on the first page of   Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s comprehensive study of American community life, “Bowling Alone.” The book’s title alluded to the fact that between 1980 and 1993, the total number of people who bowled in a given year increased ten percent, while league bowling fell by forty percent. (This irked bowling alley proprietors, as league bowlers consume thrice the amount of pizza and beer as non-league bowlers.) Putnam estimated that if concurrent rates of group membership loss—from bridge and bowling to the PTA—continued, “clubs would become extinct in America within less than 20 years.” He connected that attrition to declines in voting, newspaper readership, engagement in party politics, and other hallmarks of democracy. Putnam attributed half the blame for the overall decline in civic society to the less active descendants of the World War II generation—a generation, he wrote, that enjoyed solidarity “even among strangers.”

It turns out, though, that the VFW represents a counterexample rather than an emblem of the trend; Tom Kissell was wrong. Since 2001, the group has signed up fifteen to eighteen percent of eligible veterans, compared with about eleven percent of World War II servicemen, and even lower rates among veterans of Korea and Vietnam. New York City’s newest post, in Lower Manhattan, was founded in 2009 by an Iraq vet turned police officer, who hoped to draw from the NYPD’s numerous Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. And last year, a 30-year-old Air Force veteran named Ryan Graham, who says he overlapped with Saddam Hussein at Baghdad International Airport—joined a post in Astoria, Queens. Graham is one of 24 current conflict veterans who regularly spend time at the post; twelve have become members. A protégé of Marvin Jeffcoat, Graham sits on the VFW’s Queens County council, and aims to join the legislative committee.

Men and women like Graham, who elect for military service, represent less than half of one percent of the population. Reflecting on this shift at a lecture at the Center for New American Security in April, James Wright lamented Americans’ detachment from those fighting our wars: “They’re not our children or our neighbor’s children, or kids from the neighborhood, in most neighborhoods in this country. We don’t know who it is we’re asking to do these things.”

Rather than rotating out after one tour—standard in Korea and Vietnam, when drafts were in place—today’s troops routinely serve three or more. “You can do four tours,” state commander James Durkin says, “but you can only join the VFW once.” The dangers of multiple deployments are myriad and not yet fully understood, but today’s veterans are returning with greater need for post-war assistance than any generation before them. In addition to the well-documented rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and suicide, there is, of course, the prolonged exposure to physical danger. More than any in history, these have been wars of explosives. In 2011, the number of troops who lost limbs reached a wartime high, with the “most dramatic changes” in the number of double, triple and quadruple amputations, the Department of Defense said. In earlier conflicts, Durkin tells me, half of such injuries would have been fatal. “We’re not talking short-term care here,” VFW communications director Jerry Newberry adds. “I’m not sure that politicians, or the public have the correct understanding of that.”

I spoke with no one who said VA services had not improved, but the fact remains that the department has a current backlog of nearly a million medical claims, with more pouring in. An internal Army memo surfaced in May saying that army doctors should take care to be “good stewards” of public money, noting that a PTSD diagnosis could come with a lifetime price tag of $1.5 million.

The current conflict veterans with whom I spoke cited employment as their chief concern, and the numbers back them up: last year in New York State, 16.7 percent of new veterans were unemployed, more than twice the rate for the general population. Last week, the Senate declined to pass a $1 billion jobs bill, which aimed over the course of five years to restore up to 20,000 veterans to employment. (Pre-election obstructionism was thought to be a significant factor, as Republicans lined up to block the bill in the face of Democratic support.)

*   *   *

For the last sixty years, VFW Post 4758 has occupied a dim space below street level on a busy stretch of Fourth Avenue in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Its narrow floor planks, blonde and lacquered and tightly laid, betray its past as a bowling alley. Water damage has swelled the surface, making it unfit for its old design, but the worn lumber retains its luster, and in a storage closet at the back, you can look down and know from the small dark circles painted there where live setters used to place pins. Rough boards overlay the darkened pits in which these men once stood, at work at their strange, vanished vocation. There are mop buckets and unlabeled jugs of cleaning solution. A wheeled cylindrical cooler, emptied and in dust, stands among tangles of disused extension cord, heavy racks of colored lights—relics of a livelier era.

There is a table at Post 4758 where commander Angel Rios would like to hold his meetings, and then there’s the table at which he usually presides. The ideal model is a long folding affair of the type often used in elementary school all-purpose rooms. It could accommodate perhaps fifteen people, more if they shared Angel’s diminutive stature. He gestures with distaste to a row of five round, smaller tables across the room. One of these, he says, better suits meetings that almost never draw the ten members the VFW requires for binding votes.

“If you don’t have any members, then you got problems,” Angel says dolefully. “Don’t forget, some of these people can’t even walk.” Indeed, the post’s staircase has a motorized lift and when we met, Angel, who had broken a foot, was hobbling around in a Velcro boot. On the uninjured foot he wore a cordovan tassel loafer, which was of a piece with his white scally cap and short-sleeved button-down flowered with embroidery. A former paratrooper and Korean War veteran, Angel, at 84, says he’s solid as a rock. Born in Puerto Rico, he has the often-challenging accent to prove it, but he attributes his resilience to training in chillier climes, alongside Canadian troops: “Yukon Territory is not a piece of cake. I don’t know anybody being in their good mind would start a war there.”

Angel keeps company in this dank and deserted basement mostly with Carol, a local crossing guard who volunteers to work behind the bar, and Danny, a gracious man with a long, thin ponytail who handles custodial duties and calls Angel “Skipper.” In Korea, Angel led a machine gun unit. In daylight, he fired a 30-calibre air-cooled automatic and on night patrols preferred light weapons, taping together ammunition clips for speedy reloads. During a bombardment of his position on the Nakdong River, an enemy shell blew him from his foxhole. He woke with a chaplain standing over him, he says, and returned to battle. Years later, after the war, he would jump from helicopters with the Special Forces.

Angel swells as he recounts all he has done, transported into a former life, a body that could once intimidate—if his occasionally bullying demeanor is any indication. When talk turns to the present, he appears crestfallen. Not long ago, he says, he lost a close friend, “a little guy called Joe Cigar.” A photograph among a ghostly collage of shrunken men in pointed hats, pinned to a corkboard on a wood-paneled wall, shows Joe Cigar, a veteran of the Second World War, at almost 90. In the photo, taken in this very room, Joe dances with three U.S.O. girls. “When he died, I felt like everything died for me,” Angel says. “Joe Cigar was the soul of this place. He was in the Navy all his life, and he couldn’t even swim.”

Near the corkboard is a large glass case full of tarnished trophies won by baseball and bowling teams that the post once fielded against VFW and American Legion teams from across the city. Bathed in shadow, these objects emphasize the solitude of this place. Behind each are the forgotten victories of an assembly of dead men. They seem to remind Angel of the wheelchair he has lately needed, and he regards his orthopedic boot as if it were something otherworldly, as if he cannot quite calculate his relationship to it. “And I used to jump from 3,000 feet,” he says, eyes wide with unbelief. “And I used to jump from 3,000 feet.”

By Chris Pomorski

Chris Pomorski is currently completing a degree at NYU’s graduate school of journalism; his work has recently appeared on Indiewire and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood.

MORE FROM Chris Pomorski

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Brooklyn Iraq Longreads Narratively New York U.s. Veterans U.s. Military World War Ii