David Hemingway VFW picture

Vietnam veteran David Hemingway stands in front of a 155 mm gun used in World War II. Veteran hangouts like the VFW are in decline around the country. {/span}{/span}

Local bars and halls run by the VFW were struggling when the pandemic hit but years of declining membership followed by COVID-19 restrictions are dealing a blow to once prominent institutions.

Henry Neuberger runs VFW Post 758 in St. Albans. He says in the last two decades they’ve lost one-quarter of their membership. Nationwide that number extends to one-third, according to the AARP.

“We used to do a monthly letter and we probably had upwards of 800 or so members and we’re down to 229,” says Neuberger

He says an aging membership is partly to blame. According to the AARP, of its 1.3 million members nationwide, the average age is 67 — and 400,000 members are 80 or older.

“I’m gonna say we probably have a couple members in their 30s from Iraq and Afghanistan but I don’t think I’ve ever seen them,” says Neuberger. “Probably 80% of our members are in their late 70s, early 80s or 90s. Young people just don’t join.”

David Hemingway, a Vietnam veteran, says that he joined after the war to find comfort with other friends who had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“I was a veteran and I was a patriot and I wanted to get in with a group of guys that would understand, The VFW is one of them. We are a society of socialization. We want to be able to talk to someone,” says Hemingway. “What’s happening in the world today has actually amplified PTSD. But looking around after COVID, there’s no one here.”

Neuberger says that funding is another issue. In the last year, Post 758 has received two Payroll Protection Program loans for $6,000 and a grant from the VFW National Headquarters for $2,500.

“That first $6,000 didn’t last a whole long time. Then we were able to open back up from July to November and of course we closed back up again,” he says. “On a weekly basis, I need to make about $3,500 to $4,000, and I’m lucky if I make $2,800 or 2,900,” he says.

Neuberger says the state and the city also no longer provide the financial support that they once did.

“The state doesn’t really help VFWs or the American Legion. They used to give money toward our service officer program. They work with the veterans and with disabilities but we have to pay that service officer on a weekly basis. The city of St. Albans doesn’t give us a break on the water and sewer. We pay $650 a quarter, regardless. Electric; I’m on a budget with electricity that’s around $500, gas is around $450, so they don’t give you a break just because you’re a VFW,” says Neuberger.

Hemingway, who was wounded twice in Vietnam and received a Purple Heart, says that many vets who sought out the VFW and American Legion for support have had a hard time in the last year.

“It’s like a refuge, to come into a place where you can talk with other veterans. That neutralizes a lot of intensity and promotes camaraderie. People can go back to being themselves,” he said.

Without funding, Neuberger is unsure of how long the halls can go on.

“I don’t know how much longer we’re going to be able to stay open in St. Albans due to the fact that we don’t make enough money. {span id=”docs-internal-guid-4e16a819-7fff-012e-763b-e1f1fc1d0cb5”}{span}It’s just an organization that’s on the way out,{/span}{/span}” he said.

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