January 28, 2008 – Gordon Kirk, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8854, was the only veteran in St. Paul’s last remaining VFW club one recent afternoon.
The 84-year-old walked by his post’s war memorabilia and a case packed with sports trophies from the 1960s. The post once boasted two generals among its members.
“We had some wonderful times here,” Kirk murmured.
But those memories, like the VFW, are passing into history. Kirk is planning to sell the building as soon as he can find a buyer.
Minnesota’s capital city once had about 15 VFW halls. Post 8854’s will be the last to close, making all nine of the city’s remaining VFW posts homeless. They now meet in places like community centers or libraries.
The number of VFW posts is dropping across the country as well. An estimated 1,500 World War II veterans die each day. Membership has dropped about 17 percent since 1992 to 1.8 million members.
Minnesota loses about six VFW posts a year and now has 268, down by one-third from the peak. Minneapolis, which once had about 13, is down to one.
Some posts, have been able to buck the trend, however, by successfully recruiting veterans of the Vietnam and Middle East conflicts with a simple strategy – just asking them to join.
“If we look for veterans, we find them,” said Lee Ulferts, commander of Post 3915 in Brooklyn Park. Since he took over in 2001, the post has more than doubled membership to 600.
In contrast to the VFW, the American Legion is growing. Some attribute that to the variety of services it offers. The Legion should soon rebound to the 3 million-member peak it achieved in the early 1990s, officials said.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars was formed in 1899 as a network of fraternal service clubs, comparable to Rotary or Lions clubs. Membership swelled after World War II, with about 10,000 posts operating thousands of halls.
Ulferts said membership also surged in the 1970s, when the children of World War II veterans began leaving home, giving their parents more time to volunteer.
But Ulferts, a Vietnam veteran, said the VFW, along with the rest of America, belittled Vietnam veterans for fighting in a losing war, instead of welcoming them.
“The VFW lost a generation,” Ulferts said. “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.”
Smoking bans have also hurt the clubs, post leaders said, as have changing attitudes about drinking.
“It’s a whole change of culture,” Ulferts said.
Membership in Post 1678, near Taylors Falls, has shrunk to 14, and the post will be dissolved this year.
Commander Leland Rivard, 83, said monthly meetings draw perhaps seven old men who sit around a table in a meeting room. He said he’s lucky to get three members willing to participate in honor guard ceremonies.
“We can’t get anyone to join the post any more,” Rivard said. “As time moves on, we forget.”
The impending closing of St. Paul’s last VFW hall upsets Zenus Bell, who has volunteered to work in its kitchen up to 20 hours a week for the past 10 years.
“There are some old men who come here, and this is all they have,” said Bell, wiping a countertop.
Of the six patrons on hand that afternoon, none was a veteran. They watched TV, drank and teased each other – “Go back to your nursing home!” “Sit up straight!” – as the bartender listlessly nibbled on french fries. No veterans came in, but a mother did. She ordered macaroni and cheese for her two children.
“These men deserve more,” Bell said. “They get no grants, no nothing. They fight for their country and they have nothing?”