By Chris Chancellor
Groups cluster together at each four-seat table with another veteran often pulling up a chair to join in the conversation. There are few details that would distinguish this scenario from any other casual get together as many of the patrons enjoy their favorite domestic beer and a variety of foods from the bar that rests just steps away. Bonanza, a popular American Western TV show during the 1960s, is featured on the TV.
Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2669 on Bay Street in Port Orchard, which opened Sept. 10, 1932, is not different than most. The majority of the crowd inside the establishment are Baby Boomers – or older.
“If we can’t get the younger kids this post will die along with others all around the country,” said Roger Montez, 63, of Port Orchard. He served from 1967-76. “There’s still a thought process that it’s an old-mans club.”
Post 2669 recently initiated five younger veterans and he encourages them to put their own mark on the organization. Instead of watching reruns of famous TV shows from the 1960s or ’70s, Montez said younger members could bring in live bands to perform at night.
“Change this place around,” he said. “You’ve earned the right. It is a part of your heritage.”
George “Corky” Berthiaume, who is the VFW office manager for Washington state’s daily activities and is a member of the national council of administration for our state, Idaho and Montana, said local posts have fared better than most. The VFW, which has 29,000 members in the state, has seen about a 15 percent decline during the last decade and “we probably won’t drop any” this year. That is much better than the national picture, where many states have seen 40 to 50 percent declines in membership.
Why the post have not declined as much is attributed to the military presence in the area. In addition to naval bases in Kitsap, Everett and Whidbey Island, there is Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Pierce County. The latter has experienced substantial growth in recent years and has sent more troops to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq than any other base in the nation.
Berthiaume, who served 38 years, including stints in South Korea and Vietnam, believes that age should not be an issue when it comes to joining the VFW.
While camaraderie is a buzzword among those who join the organization, Berthiaume said the VFW also serves as an important political organization. In an era where deficits – and budget cutting mechanisms – are regular discussion points among politicians, the military is not immune from that. Perhaps none are more significant than veterans benefits.
“That brings more of the veterans to us because we’re the ones that speak for them,” Berthiaume said. “Active-duty military cannot go out and protest.”
Berthiaume, who scheduled a meeting with Sen. Patty Murray earlier this month to discuss those issues, said the VFW takes positions that should appeal to younger veterans. Among those are looking at ways to curb unemployment rates – job numbers for January revealed that unemployment among veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan was 9.1 percent, but it was as much as 15.2 percent – and discussion about increasing health-care premiums and reducing coverage for active-duty military and their families in additions to those who are retired.
“We just want to ensure the veterans are taken care of,” Berthiaume said. “Our biggest goals are to see that those (benefits) are not cut. They’re at absolute minimums right now.
“That was the understanding for their sacrifices. They don’t need to be reneging on that.”
Though the VFW says they advocate, they are restricted from direct lobbying.
Another significant medical issue within the military for the last several years has been Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition that results from experiencing a traumatic event, such as mortality. Known symptoms include frequent nightmares, flashbacks, irritability and reclusiveness. Recovery from PTSD can be quick or a lifelong ordeal.
“We see how it has helped veterans and families deal with physical wounds and PTSD,” Berthiaume said. “It makes you feel good and it’s healing for yourself.”
Berthiaume said the best way for veterans to fight for their issues is en masse.
“We don’t have mega millions of dollars,” he said. “The only way we have any impact with the Legislature is passionate appeals.”
Pete Cholometes, commander of VFW Post 239 in Bremerton, attributes some of the organization’s recruiting efforts of younger veterans to knowledge.
“People don’t even understand what VFW means,” he said. “They just think it’s some other organization.”
Cholometes, 70, who served in Vietnam, believes the VFW’s slogan change should help with those efforts. It was changed from “Honor the Dead by Helping the Living” to “No One Does More for Veterans.”
Local VFW’s have been busy recently with the construction of honor walls to memorialize veterans. Fred Needham Post 2669 began work in March on a 24-foot-long, 6-foot-high brick wall that could list as many as 12,000 veterans’ names at the Port of Bremerton Marina Park. Port Orchard also will feature a similar Wall of Honor along the waterfront. That one will be 28-feet long and 6-feet high. Montez said all 600 bricks on the front side of the wall have been sold, while about 500 remain for purchase at the other end. The cost is $30 per brick. Unlike many walls, neither Bremerton nor Port Orchard’s is a momorial and anyone who has served can purchase a brick, according to Montez.
Another local VFW project is the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” which honors fallen military men and women at Ivy Green Cemetery in Bremerton. Cholometes believes the only similar memorial is in Washington, D.C.
Those are just a couple of the volunteer efforts conducted through local VFW’s. But if membership continues to erode to the point that they eventually no longer are in existence, will any people or organizations step forward to honor them?
Berthiaume is not certain. He recently returned from spending six days in Washington, D.C., for business purposes, but he made sure to stop by Arlington National Cemetery. Berthiaume, who made his first visit there since 1959, said he was appalled by what he experienced. He said respect for veterans has deteriorated during the last half century.
“Even the respect of veterans who were laid in Arlington is not there,” he said. “It says to be quiet. There was a group of people there who were laughing and joking. I stopped them to remind them this is a place people died for you to have the right to freedom.”
In a sense, Berthiaume finds that trend more troubling than the VFW’s dwindling participation numbers. Veterans need time to recognize the benefits of joining his organization.
“The Vietnam veterans were the same way,” he said. “They weren’t in any hurry to come into the VFW.”
Montez, who now is a regular at his post, is an example of that. He said he did not consider joining the VFW until “six or seven years ago” when his friends informed him about the organization and outlined the potential benefits of joining.
Cholometes said a 24-year-old woman recently stopped by his post to fill out paperwork to join the organization, and Montez said five younger veterans stopped by his post recently to inquire about joining. Berthiaume is optimistic that the VFW might have more success recruiting those who served during Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom because they are “interested in seeing better treatment than Vietnam veterans.”
“It’s the bond that we have,” Berthiaume said. “It’s the life experience. They feel more comfortable with people that have seen the same as they have.”
Cholometes believes that is a message VFW leaders need to communicate beyond the slogan change.
“You will find that people will tell more about themselves when someone has been through the same thing in the same time frame,” he said. “I’ve been shot at and rocketed at just like everyone else over there.”