As Old Soldiers Die, V.F.W. Halls Fade Away
By Dirk Johnson, , September 6, 1999
BERWYN, Ill. -- The old soldiers talked about the days, not so long ago, when they skated across the dance floor at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2378, swinging as if the songs would never end.
"It would get so packed the walls would bulge," said George Alexander, a World War II veteran, standing near a row of empty bar stools at the veterans' lodge in this old blue-collar Chicago suburb. "Now we go to a lot of funerals."
As time conquers the heroes of World War II, and the nation loses more than 1,000 veterans a day, VFW posts around the United States are struggling to survive. With membership falling, nearly 300 of the nation's 10,000 VFW posts have folded in the last few years, unable to shoulder property taxes on the halls.
In a move to save these halls, lawmakers in Illinois have enacted a bill that reduces taxes on property owned by veterans' groups by 85 percent, and freezes them at that level.
"The generation that saved Private Ryan is leaving us, unfortunately," said Dennis Culloton, a spokesman for Gov. George Ryan of Illinois, who signed the tax-relief measure. "They were there for us when it counted. Now it's our turn to be there for them."
Nearly 550,000 veterans died in 1998, the majority of them World War II soldiers. The number of deaths yearly is projected to grow to 620,000 in 2008, according to Ken McKinnon, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and then start to decline.
About 25 million Americans alive today have served in the military. Of these, 19 million are over 50. The survivors of World War II are in their mid-70s and older, with most Korean War veterans at least 70. The average age of the Vietnam War veteran is 51. There are believed to be about 3,500 veterans of World War I, all of them at least 95, McKinnon said.
Some 16 million Americans served in World War II, eight times the number of troops now active in all branches of the military. Six million of the World War II soldiers are still alive, and about 4 million Korean War veterans are still living.
But the deaths of veterans are coming in such large numbers that military bases are having a difficult time sending honor guards to the funerals of all those who served in the military. Unable to send a bugler to play at every funeral, the Defense Department now uses a tape-recorded version of taps for the memorial services of some veterans.
"We didn't expect a lot from life, our generation," said Andrew Stevenson, 70, a veteran of the Korean War who still remembers the cold winds like a razor blade ripping over the mountain. "We wanted to get out of high school, get a car, get a girl, get a house, have some kids and just sit out on the front steps and talk. Kids today, they don't look at things that way."
Besides being a lodge for veterans, the VFW hall, a fixture of the old neighborhood, has long served as a sort of working-class country club, a place for wedding receptions, anniversary parties, class reunions.
The Berwyn post, a yellow brick building with a green cannon out front, was a place where veterans could "have a home away from home," as Bill Lincoln, a 71-year-old World War II veteran, put it.
It is not just the veterans' organizations that are having a hard time recruiting members. All of the fraternal clubs, like the Elks and the Moose, have had difficulty attracting new members.
"Kids today just aren't joiners," said Tom Kissell, the membership director for the national VFW. "The lodge mentality is no longer there."
But Kissell acknowledged that the membership problems went deeper and were a legacy of the generation gap between the World War II and Vietnam veterans, a chasm that never quite closed.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2378, in Berwyn, Ill., has long served as a sort of working-class country club in the Chicago suburb. Credit: Todd Buchanan for The New York Times
On bingo night at the Berwyn post on a recent Tuesday night, the World War II and Korean veterans would shake their heads about the Vietnam generation, who never joined the VFW in large numbers.
"The Vietnam guys, they want to be off by themselves," said Lloyd Hyatt, a 70-year-old Korean War veteran, scarcely able to contain his displeasure.
But many of the Vietnam men say they never felt welcome in the veterans' clubs.
Kissell, the VFW official and himself a Vietnam veteran, said the young men returning from Southeast Asia were often given short shrift.
"There are still a lot of hard-nosed old-time veterans who think the only war this country ever fought was World War II," Kissell said.
Even now, the older veterans in the Berwyn hall talk about the pot-smoking by men in Vietnam. For their part, some of the Vietnam men say they rankled the older veterans by speaking frankly about politics and patriotism.
"I feel our government was wrong in Vietnam," Kissell said, but he acknowledged that many older veterans consider it wrong to dissent when a country is at war. "We sacrificed 58,000 kids who never got the chance to grow up. And if I saw another Vietnam developing, I would do everything in my power to keep my sons out of it."
To young veterans like Matthew Claussen, 30, who served as a Marine in the Persian Gulf war, the Vietnam group seems like the older generation.
Claussen, who was recently elected commander of the Berwyn post, said veterans' organizations needed to be more open to change.
"Every meeting we'll have an argument, and someone will say, 'We've always done it this way,"' Claussen said. "And I'll say: 'Well, the old way is not working anymore. Times are changing."'
The bar once served as a center of gravity at veterans' clubs, a place where people would meet to drink a beer, or several, and tell some jokes. But the bar is no longer considered an attraction.
Kissell, who said he joined the veterans' club 25 years ago "because it had a good softball team and the coldest beer in town," said younger veterans typically preferred a post without a bar.
"Having a bar is a liability today, not a help," he said.
Beer was for sale at the Berwyn post, but iced tea and ginger ale were the big sellers. Meatloaf sandwiches were selling for $1.75, and apple slices were 80 cents.
"You know, the best thing about being here is also the hardest," Alexander said. "You get to have such good friends. And then you lose them."
On this bingo night, members of the women's auxiliary had come to the hall to help.
"I'm here to harass you," said Virginia Cerks with a wink, as she traded a $20 bill for change from Tony Scafa, an 85-year-old World War II veteran, one of the cashiers for the evening. "Where have you been, anyway?"
He raised an arm wearily and swatted the air.
"Oh, I had a heart attack," he said. "And now they say I've got these leaky valves."
The woman took her change, but did not move for a moment.
"Anything else?" Scafa said.
"Yes," she said. "I'm glad that you're here."
Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations
© 1999 by Neil Mishalov