When you enter the Stephenson Delauncey Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 79 on Old Highway 80 West, the first thing you’ll notice is the numerous decorations on the walls, including flags and pictures of former U.S. servicemen.
The second thing you’ll notice is how spacious it is, with a stage up front for a band and room to spare for a dance area, even when you account for the many tables, chairs and the bar in the back.
The vast space remains mostly empty these days, with the exception of meetings and dances on Saturday nights. The threat of closing its doors for good is real.
The post has 237 registered members — but only 10 or so are regularly involved. A building built to house a sizable crowd on any given night is now open only once a week and is nowhere near capacity when it does.
Following his return from the Vietnam War, David Davis joined Post 79 in 1972 but didn’t participate much at first.
“I’m just like the young folks today, I had so much going on like my family to raise that I really didn’t have time,” Davis said.
But Davis’ heart was tugged by the desire to help fellow combat veterans with their post-war struggles, and the VFW eventually became a big part of his life. The mission of Post 79 is to provide a place for combat veterans to meet and socialize, as well as do community service and raise money for charity, which made Davis want to get more involved. Now the quartermaster for Post 79, Davis is noticing the same trend among today’s veterans — like him in 1972, they’re too busy to be involved in the VFW.
That has led to financial struggles, with Post 79 barely hanging on, according to Davis. The post was founded in June 1934, and while the building itself is paid for, insurance costs approximately $5,000 a year, and utilities can cost between $700-$900 a month during the summer. While dances on Saturday night to help pay for the utilities, Davis and Post 79 commander Michael Alexander have had to spend some of their own money to help keep it afloat.
“We just do not have enough participation,” Davis said. “The members we have, they’re all getting old. Back 10 to 15 years ago they could get out and come, but they’ve gotten to the age where they’re physically not able to get out and participate.”
Just a couple of decades ago, Davis and Alexander said the building would host 50 to 60 people on any given night. In addition to the members unable to attend due to age, many have since moved to other states.
Competing for time
Neither Davis nor Alexander are blaming the younger veterans. After spending so much time overseas, the younger generation coming home from foreign wars have enough on their plates, Alexander said.
“You have a guy in his 30s and 40s, or even his late 20s that’s a veteran, and they have a huge house note, they have a wife, husband or kids, and they have to take care of a family, so they don’t have time,” Alexander said. “People used to make time to come out to the VFW and support it, but times have changed, so it’s a real struggle on our part to get new members in that even want to be part of the post.”
Post 79 isn’t the only VFW post feeling the shortage of younger participants. Danny Smith, quartermaster for Meridian’s other post, Post 12124 on State Boulevard, said it’s imperative the organization be replenished with younger veterans who could bring fresh ideas as well as bring in people more familiar with how the different branches of the military operate today.
“As much as the (older) folks there now have contributed to both the country and to the VFW, they won’t be there forever,” Smith said.
Like Davis and Alexander, Smith said he understands the difficulty of younger veterans devoting time to something like the VFW once their military service has concluded.
“Some of them are disillusioned with what went on,” Smith said. “I wasn’t in Vietnam, but I served during Vietnam and saw how they got a raw end of the deal. A lot of folks, when they get away (from the military), they’re unhappy with the way things went and don’t feel like they can make much of a difference.”
Hurt by perception
Davis said he’s found younger veterans are much more open to possibly being involved if recruiters can work past that disillusionment.
“One difficult thing to overcome is the perception that we’re just a bunch of old boys who want to get together, have a drink and dance,” Davis said. “There is that, but it’s not all we do. In a couple of weeks, we’ll be doing a buddy-poppy drive where we’ll present poppy (flowers) dedicated to people who fought and made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Bruce Rivers, 27, served in the Navy for four years and was stationed overseas in Dubai, Australia and Guam during that time. He’s now a full-time student at Meridian Community College majoring in electronic technology and telecommunication technology. While he said he wasn’t disillusioned after his service ended, Rivers said he hasn’t considered getting involved in a veterans organization.
“No real reason, I’m just not really interested,” Rivers said.
Rivers didn’t totally close the door on getting involved in one in the future, but it’s not in his immediate plans.
“I’m not sure — we’ll see when I get older,” Rivers said.
Davis said the VFW isn’t something to which people can devote just a few hours a month in order for it to function.
“The VFW takes up a lot of time if you get in there and work it right, and the younger guys, they have families, kids in school and ball games to attend,” Davis said.
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Post 79 was self-sustaining when Alexander joined in 2002, but as participation has decreased over time, questions have arisen about its ability to remain open. There was an offer to buy the building back in the spring, but it wasn’t for the amount of money the post’s members wanted to seriously consider selling. Alexander said no one is beating down their door to rent the building for events, and he isn’t sure if the public realizes how real the possibility is of shutting down Post 79.
“Me and David Davis have done everything we can to keep this place open, but there comes a time where you have to say enough is enough,” Alexander said.
No one involved with the VFW makes money, and Davis said if it wasn’t for volunteers and donors, Post 79 couldn’t remain open. If it had to close, Davis said it would be a bitter pill to swallow.
“It would be, to say the least, heartbreaking,” Davis said.