VFWs struggle as numbers dwindle, more vets connect online
When Joseph Coney wants to talk with other veterans, he connects with them on Facebook.
Out of about 50 of his Army buddies, Coney said, only one or two have joined a Veterans of Foreign Wars post. The rest find that through social media, the same feeling of community is "readily available or dispensable at your fingertips."
"It's almost like that brotherhood is already there, regardless, so why would I need to go to a club or someplace to talk even more?" said Coney, 28, who deployed to Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom and earned the rank of staff sergeant.
VFW posts have struggled in recent years as aging veterans became less active because of their health, then passed away, and younger veterans focused on school, work or their families rather than joining.
Coney, who lives in Groton, has a new job as an electrical lineman apprentice and, he said, "way too much going on."
Only U.S. citizens who served honorably in an overseas conflict, received a campaign medal for overseas service, served the required number of days in Korea or received combat pay are eligible to join. Statewide, the number of VFW members declined from about 35,000 in the 1990s to roughly 17,500 today at 117 posts.
"There must be a better way. I wish I knew what it was," Bill Lewis, a past post commander in Mystic, said this week. "The handwriting is on the wall. We've got to do something."
In New London and Mystic, the profits from the bar, or canteen, no longer cover the bills, and the number of active members is dwindling. Veterans at both posts have come up with new events that they are counting on to bring more people through the doors and keep their posts going. The Mystic post even reinstated smoking in January after a two-year ban to entice back the members who left when the ban was approved.
Robert Froelick, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of Connecticut, said the state organization does not have a way to step in and help struggling posts.
But both Froelick and Ronald "Rusko" Rusakiewicz, the state VFW adjutant/quartermaster, said the organization will continue. As long as the country sends service members overseas, there will be new veterans and a need for other veterans to support them, Rusakiewicz said.
"We're the keepers of the key, and it's up to us to pass it off to the new generation," Rusakiewicz said. "That is what we want to do and plan to do. It's just that they're not ready to accept those keys yet."
Until that day comes, the posts need ways to stay financially solvent. Some posts have investigated merging facilities with other service organizations, while others think VFW posts may have to consolidate so one post covers several towns.
In New London, the Murphy-Rathbun VFW Post 189 will host a new steak night this Saturday and the first in a series of monthly breakfasts on Sunday, both of which are open to the public. Happy hour is new to Fridays and the post lowered the cost of renting the hall.
Kevin Booth, chairman of the post's House Committee, said he needs the money from these events and the hall rentals to pay this month's bills, especially the oil bill. For savings, the committee has less than $150 in a box, Booth said.
The post is now only open for events, instead of seven days a week, to save on utilities. For years, the post has hosted a pasta night on the second Wednesday of every month and bingo on Tuesday nights.
Out of the last 18 months, only five were profitable, even though the post owns its building and does not pay a mortgage. February is a critical month for the post because of the cost of oil, Booth said. He said he can't rent the hall or hold any of the events without heat.
"We're a cat chasing our own tail," added Mike Discordia, the chaplain and a past commander.
If Booth cannot pay February's bills, he said he will give the keys to the building to the post commander - a move that would close the bar, and effectively the post hall, since only the House Committee's funds can be used for the building's operations. The post was founded nearly a century ago.
In the 1970s, '80s and '90s, the members numbered 500, compared to about 180 today, and the post was often full for poker, pool tournaments, dinner theater and socializing at the bar, according to the members who are trying to save the post.
"We can't get the young veterans to join," said Harold "Hap" Chappell, a trustee of the post.
"Or their wives," added Kimberly Steele, president of the post's Ladies Auxiliary. "We have over 100 members. Five come to meetings. A lot live out of the state or they're old and can't drive or they're in nursing homes with health issues."
The average age of the membership is 72 to 74.
The post met with another fraternal organization about sharing facilities, but the veterans said there were too many unresolved questions, such as whose building they would use and which organization would get the profits from the bar. They said they were also reluctant to go to another VFW post because it would not be their club, in their city.
Mergers a possibility
At the Hugo A. Simonelli VFW Post 3263 in Mystic, the situation is not as dire, said Raymond D. Ross Jr., the post commander. But he said he is confronting many of the same issues.
Ross said he is hoping that allowing smoking, except from 2 to 5 p.m., will bring in more business both from members and the public.
Ross said he wants to encourage members of the Ladies Auxiliary to visit more, and female veterans to join as members. Mondays will now be Ladies' Night. Tuesdays will be for the men. Each night features a raffle where the winner gets free drinks the following Monday or Tuesday night.
He is also trying to bring in karaoke on Fridays for members and the public, and the post now hosts a breakfast that is also open to the public on the third Sunday of each month. The February breakfast is this Sunday morning.
"I'm doing the best I can to keep this post going, and I'll continue to do that," said Ross, who added that the members are supportive. "There are a lot of posts that are not doing that great. A lot of them are closing. There might be a couple of posts that end up merging. We'll have to wait and see."
One way some posts have adjusted is by not having a post hall at all.
The Lyme-Old Lyme VFW Post 1467, which received a charter in 1993, meets in the Lymes' Senior Center. Without a building to pay for or a bar to run, the veterans can focus solely on helping other veterans, said Ed Shyloski, the veterans' service officer.
The American Legion has almost 20,500 members in Connecticut. Everett G. Shepard III, the department adjutant, said that number may grow slightly this year because of the national organization's aggressive direct mail solicitation to veterans. He said he also expects the Legion would be doing slightly better than the VFW because its criteria for joining is less strict.
David Kurokawa, a student at the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus, is one of the younger veterans who have joined the VFW. Kurokawa, 30, said he joined the post in his hometown in Illinois because the post did a lot for the community when he was growing up.
Kurokawa, who, like Coney, deployed to Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom and earned the rank of staff sergeant, is also a member of Face book groups for Army soldiers, which he said function as a "digital VFW."
"The downside to that is, it's really just veterans chatting with other veterans and sharing a joke 1,000 miles away, as opposed to a lot of the community-oriented things that local VFWs do," he said.
Kurokawa said he thinks his peers will eventually join the VFW - though not in the same numbers as veterans of other eras did - as they start to realize, "There's a lot more that can be had by being in a room with other veterans, working with them and doing things for the community."
"I think younger veterans will come around," he said. "It's just going to take a little bit of time."