Brian Duffy, commander-in-chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said during a visit to Vicenza, Italy, on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016, that the veterans' service organization was evolving.

Brian Duffy, commander-in-chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said during a visit to Vicenza, Italy, on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016, that the veterans' service organization was evolving. ()

VICENZA, Italy — They’re practicing yoga. They’re keeping bees. The Veterans of Foreign Wars is casting off the stereotype of the group as a collection of hard-drinking old coots complaining about liberals and gays in the military, the group’s commander-in-chief said Friday.

“We do 9 million hours of community service,” VFW Commander-in-Chief Brian Duffy said, dismissing that stereotype as unfair. “If everybody’s sitting at the bar drinking, who’s doing the work?”

The VFW has accomplished much since its inception after the Spanish-American War, including pushing hard for benefits newer combat veterans still receive, such as the GI Bill. With 1.4 million members, the group is a force on Capitol Hill.

“You give voice by numbers. We all know the folks in Congress listen to numbers, when they listen,” Duffy said.

A former airman who served in the Gulf War and retired as a top UPS pilot, Duffy was in the midst of an annual tour of overseas posts. Vicenza’s VFW post, with more than 1,000 members, is one of the largest. He said overseas posts attract more members because the organization provides an outlet for camaraderie with other veterans — one of the group’s founding purposes — and other Americans in general.

But general membership is down from a peak of 2.1 million in 1992, Duffy said, when World War II veterans, Korean War and Vietnam veterans swelled VFW ranks. Now, most WWII vets have passed away. The majority of members are Vietnam vets in their 60s, he said.

Still, Duffy said, the service group, which did not admit women until 1978 and six years ago opposed allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military, was evolving.

Six of 53 top VFW officials are women. Denver’s post elected its first openly gay commander this year.

“We’re getting there. What’s important is someone’s leadership ability,” Duffy said. “Some people get it. We understand it, too.”

The organization is working to attract younger vets, although Duffy said that the eligible pool is far smaller than after WWII: just 1 million troops who deployed repeatedly to Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s one reason for the yoga classes. Another is the VFW’s growing emphasis on mental-health issues.

“We’ve got a post doing bee-keeping. Why bee-keeping? It’s been identified as a therapy for stress,” Duffy said.

Besides meeting with commanders and visiting VFW posts, Duffy was tasked on this trip with retrieving a meaningful piece of jewelry: the ring of an American pilot whose P-38 went down in San Luca, near Vicenza, in 1943. The injured pilot, 2nd Lt. Jules Hymel, was rescued by the Girardi family, and after being taken captive by the occupying German army, eventually returned home to Louisiana. His pilot’s ring remained for 73 years with the Girardi family — until an effort involving an Italian historical group and the Vicenza VFW put the Girardi and Hymel family connection together.

Duffy will receive the ring from 84-year-old Egidio Girardi at a ceremonial dinner at a castle in Marostica and then return it to Hymel’s survivors.

“We want to preserve the memory and history of our dead,” Duffy said. “Or as we say, to honor the dead by helping the living.”

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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