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At once-stodgy VFW, a new portrait of America's changing military

Helping vets

With wood paneling and steak dinners, Veterans of Foreign Wars posts can seem part of a bygone era. But by turning to art nights and yoga, one revitalized itself – and showed how to serve a new generation of veterans. 

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    From left, VFW Post 2689 Commander Mike Smith, Quartermaster Leslie Ackermann and Chaplain/Service Officer Mike Harrell salute as Past Commander Jerry Walling raises the flag to half-staff June 13, 2012 in honor of Flag Day, in Huntington, Ind.
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In the up-and-coming heart of a neighborhood that boasts a cross-fit gym, a sushi restaurant, and several modern art galleries, the door of the nation’s first Veterans of Foreign Wars post is open for yoga class. 

The instructor, Marine veteran Sarah Plummer Taylor, tells her cross-legged students that while they close their eyes, she’ll keep hers open, to watch the room – a nod to those grappling with post-traumatic stress. 

“I imagine we also have a lot of members of the tight hamstring club,” she says, as she takes the class through a gentle series of poses. 

“That would be an affirmative,” says Alan Norton, a Vietnam vet gamely endeavoring a downward-facing dog in jeans and a short-sleeve button-up shirt.

The former commander of VFW Post 1, Mr. Norton recalls the years when the post drew very few young people – very few members at all, for that matter. 

Now the post attracts scores of Iraq and Afghanistan-era vets, who come for classes on yoga, meditation, and a host of other offerings. "Word’s getting out about Post 1,” Norton says.

For her part, Brittany Bartges tried to join the VFW once. She never thought she’d try again. 

A former intelligence specialist in Iraq, she had to apply for two waivers to enlist in the Army: one for her height (4’10’’) and one for the trouble she got into as a self-described “bad kid.” 

“My parents were cool people, but they had their own struggles,” she says.

Occasionally sleeping in laundromats and parks, Ms. Bartges used the services at a homeless shelter to get her GED. After being promoted in basic training, Bartges deployed to Iraq during the height of the surge.

When she returned with her infantry division after 15 months of war, she was excited to join the VFW. “I knew that there was camaraderie there.”

But she wasn’t on the receiving end of that fellowship. What she discovered was “not the most friendly people,” she says. “They see a female and assume you’re there to meet your boyfriend, or trying to hook up with a soldier.”

“How do I show I belong here?” she wondered. “Do I belong here? Maybe,” she thought, “I shouldn’t have to work so hard.” 

Steak nights and wood paneling

It’s the same question that young American soldiers of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – men and women alike – have been asking themselves for the past decade-plus, veteran service organization officials acknowledge. 

The vets report feeling “awkward” at best, unwelcome at worst, at posts whose hallmark has long been steak nights, bingo, bars, and no shortage of wood paneling. 

That widespread feeling has resulted in plunging membership for vets organizations nationwide. Even with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan waged in the past 14 years, membership in the VFW has decreased by roughly half.  

During the same period of time, one out of four VFW posts has been forced to close its doors.

VFW Post 1 was among those casualties. It, too, was forced to shutter and sell its building, at a time when it could rarely pull together a quorum of five members for meetings. Now that number has risen nearly 20-fold, to 93 attendees last month.

This matters to communities that want to welcome veterans back home after their service, but are uncertain how to do it. 

That uncertainty is the result of a growing civil-military divide, in a country that has fought two wars in the past 14 years with less than 1 percent of the population. When those veterans return, they occasionally struggle with post-military life: One in two veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan say that they know a fellow service member who has attempted or committed suicide, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Health poll.

“Just imagine if that veteran had a support system in place like the local Post to offer assistance, mentorship, or friendship,” says Les Davis, a national recruiter with the AMVETS a veteran service organization (VSO).

These organizations often help create partnerships within communities, to help with everything from résumé writing to offering fellowship.

Yet on the fellowship front, many VSOs haven’t been garnering rave reviews.

In late 2014, the VFW national commander reprimanded his affiliates in an open letter, writing that he was “extremely disturbed” by reports that the organization “is comprised of old and out of touch veterans who would rather drink in a dimly lit canteen than open their doors to our younger veterans.” 

He encouraged the posts to “change their operational tactics to better reflect the modern crises younger veterans are facing on their new ‘battlefield’ – the home front.”

VFW Post 1 Commander Michael Mitchel concurred. When he joined Post 1 back in 2002, there were rarely enough vet attendees for a quorum. In 2007, the post was forced to sell its chapter building due to lagging membership.

After wandering homeless for nearly a decade, the post was able to buy the space it occupies today – minus the canteen.

“What attracted me to it was that it wasn’t a locked door and a big parking lot like most VFWs,” he adds. “It was storefront. We were part of the community, whether we liked it or not.”

Today Post 1 is endeavoring to remake itself for a new generation of veterans, offering yoga, meditation, child care, and most important, members here say, a strong connection to community that can help break down the civilian-military divide.

The Post has dropped the old canteen model, and is focusing on renting out the bright and airy space for community events, like weddings, as a means of making money. “Often, the VFW has a bad reputation because of that dark bar stereotype,” says Mitchel. “We didn’t want that.” 

The hopes for a new way forward have exceeded their expectations, he says. “We had an idea of what this community could be like, but it’s blown me away. There has been such a pent-up demand for what we do.”

'Oh, I just thought it would be war art'

The veterans see this demand during "First Friday” art events every month, when the galleries that surround the post open their doors to the community.

The space is lined with paintings, photographs, and sculptures, including one giant Transformer-like robot behind a glass pane, an ode to PTSD.

The night can draw upward of 1,500 people. “You hear people say, ‘Oh, this is the veterans gallery, we have to go in,’ ” says Jim Stevens, the post’s art director. “Once they come in, I love to hear them say, ‘Oh, I just thought it would be war art.’ ”

A Special Forces soldier tasked with rescuing prisoners of war, Mr. Stevens recalls one of the “best days of my life” in Vietnam, when he found the missing lieutenant colonel he’d been tracking for three days. “He’d been shot down, and I snuck in and got him – kicked his cage door open – and there were two captains with him. It was like, jackpot!”

Stevens survived a gunshot to the head, only to be blinded more than 20 years later by the aftereffects.

Though in many programs, “It’s art as rehabilitation,” that was not Stevens’s aim at Post 1.  

“We’ve been pretty up front with folks saying, ‘Your art may be rehabilitation for you, but that’s not what we want you here for,’ ” he says. “We’re not saying you’re here because you have a disability. We're saying you’re here because you’re an artist.” 

Mitchel would like to see writing festivals, plays, poetry slams, and music concerts. There’s already a culinary arts offering, in the form of a rooftop beehive for artisanal VFW honey.

It’s a long way from the homeless years, but that time helped drive the post to develop many of the programs it currently offers, says Bartges, now Senior Vice Commander at Post 1. The lack of a bar, or even a building, “allowed us to focus on networks to better support vets.” 

It is that kind of innovation that veterans today desperately need, says Les Davis, a national recruiter for AMVETS (American Veterans), a veterans’ service organization with some 250,000 members. 

Hired by the organization to figure out why so few Iraq and Afghanistan war vets are joining VSOs, Mr. Davis – who was an Army truck driver supporting a tank company during the First Gulf War – set out to visit various American Legion and VFW posts across the country.

Whether he was in Wyoming or Kansas, Maryland or Florida, he ran headlong into some troubling common denominators.

“I’d walk in, sit at the bar and order a Coke, and nobody would even say a word to me. Everyone is huddling over their drinks, not welcoming me, kind of making me feel like I don’t belong here,” he says. “That happened again and again and again.

“I’d ask my vet buddies, ‘Do you guys ever get this?’ And everyone said they did.”

That was surprising to Davis, considering the stories he often heard of the Vietnam-era vets who felt rejected by the World War II vets before them. 

“When they came back, they’d try to go into the VFW and the American Legion and they’d hear, ‘You don’t belong here—you didn’t win your war.’ ”

Vets today want a place where they could feel welcome to do their homework, drop their child off for daycare, and maybe avail themselves of some exercise equipment, Davis says. “They don’t want a smoke-filled bar. They want a community center.” 

'We're not joining the VFW – we're joining Post 1'

And that is just what is bringing in the members to Post 1, a development VFW national leadership is closely tracking, says Mitchel.

“There’s some buzz. You ask people, ‘Why did you come to this meeting’ and they say, ‘I heard something was happening and I needed to come check it out.’ ”

The culture they are discovering is so unlike what they have come to associate with the VFW that they routinely tell Mitchel, “We’re not joining the VFW – we’re joining Post 1.”

Indeed, within the larger VFW there have been fears of marginalization in the wake of modernization. 

The Ladies Auxiliary had their concerns. Some of the husbands of the female veterans – who now make up roughly 15 to 20 percent of VFW members – were interested in joining.

“I really wanted to be a part of it – I wanted to help,” says Keith Runyan, Bartges’ husband. 

Yet the Auxiliary was initially resistant to the idea. “I think the big concern is that the men would come in and take it over – that they wouldn’t go along with our ideas,” says Marsha Harrison, president of the VFW Post 1 Ladies Auxiliary.

“They took a lot of pride in the fact that the Auxiliary was women built and women run – they had a civic voice where they couldn’t have one before,” adds Bartges. “You could see why there was such a big pushback."

It was pushback that John Harry anticipated. As a gay veteran, he had never considered joining the VFW. 

But Post 1 president Mitchel reached out, sponsoring events for gay veterans rights groups and convincing Mr. Harry to join the post. 

At the national convention, however, Harry recalls a conversation with a state Ladies’ Auxiliary president, who asked whether he had a girlfriend.
“I laughed and said no, and then she asked me if I had any sisters” – who are also eligible to join. “I said yes, but they are fairly young and they live in Arkansas.”

She told him that as a VFW member, he needed to do his part to help the Ladies’ Auxiliary grow.

“So I said to her, ‘OK, riddle me this: The face of vets is changing, and we have more and more women. Why don’t you welcome the men?’ ”

In August, the VFW dropped the “Ladies” from Auxiliary, opening up the organization to men nationwide. Roughly 12,000 spouses of female and gay vets have become members in the seven months since.

Mr. Runyan is one of them.

“I think it’s going to be great getting sons, brothers, fathers – all these people in there that can give different perspectives on how to get things done.”

And despite some resistance, Post 1 has pushed for gay rights, support that has seeped into the culture of the post. Last month, Harry was nominated to be executive director of Post 1. 

For her part, Bartges recalls a recent membership meeting, after leaders had taken part in an ad campaign supporting gay vets. 

“This old-school Vietnam-era vet – he looked like a biker guy – stood up and said, ‘I saw a commercial this week,’ ” Bartges said, adding that she figured things were about to get ugly.

“Instead he said, ‘I just want to say how proud I am of our members for doing that.’ I almost cried. I thought, ‘This is my post.’ ”

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Keith Runyan's name and to reflect that John Harry has been nominated to be executive director of Post 1.

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