Cheers to the Lost VFW Posts of America

Cheers to the Lost VFW Posts of America

Memorial Day is a solemn occasion, even in a saloon. I’ve been in many bars where there’s a full mug of beer in front of an empty bar stool, bought by a buddy of a guy who didn’t make it back with the rest of his friends. For a brief moment, that’s his memorial.

But across the country, there is a different kind of memorial, not to the fallen but for those who made it back – the VFW post.

Founded by veterans of the Spanish-American War in 1899, the VFW is an advocacy organization for veterans who fought overseas and came home with needs often unmet by our government. The VFW—that is, Veterans of Foreign Wars—helps vets by assisting them in getting VA benefits, lobbying for funding, providing grants and scholarships, or maybe even emergency relief funds. They also do the solemn duty of honor guard at funerals and civic events.

But the post itself – the locations they occupy – also serves as a place for fellowship, where vets can gather and enjoy each other’s company. Also, these posts have bars (though to be technical, they’re called canteens).

I remember the first time I visited one of them. I was the guest of a crusty old WWII vet named Carl. I loved listening to the stories about his time in the service, all the places he’d gone, and all he’d done. And he had a lot to say.

Carl joined the US Army when he was 15 in 1938—his mom lied about his age and said he was 16 (he didn’t have a birth certificate). By the time the US entered the war, Carl was 19 and considered a grizzled veteran, bossing around guys ten years older than him.

Carl smoked non-filtered Camels and made off-color jokes pretty much all day long. He lit one smoke from another, sipped his beer thoughtfully, and then told me about “them girls in Germany.” He’d then laugh and sit back in his chair and contemplate the baseball game that was on behind the bar.

I remember when my state, and pretty much all the others too, outlawed smoking in bars. But because VFWs are private clubs, they were pretty much the only place you could still smoke anymore and be left alone. And a lot of the visitors did, visitors like Carl.

I bring all this up to say that the VFW posts – the canteens, to be exact – are quickly disappearing. We could blame COVID and the restrictions that followed – but that would only be part of an explanation.

Experts point to changing the guard, or a lack thereof. The membership of VFW Posts was always bulwarked by large masses of veterans returning from large wars. World Wars I and II, as well as the Korean and Vietnam Wars, resulted in new posts popping up all over the country. You’d find them in small towns and large cities all over the US, and in fact there are still over 6200 of them, but in a lot of those towns the once proud buildings are now shuttered and dark.

In 1992, there were over two million active VFW members, and today, there are about 950,000—less than half of what there used to be. This despite all the vets returning from the Middle East after the wars there—they just don’t want to join for some reason.

The upshot of all this is the loss of the one place where vets could go and feel most at home. In Okeechobee, Florida, VFW Post 4423 lost their building, selling it to pay off bills they accumulated due to lack of membership. The same was true for Passaic, New Jersey’s Post 10117. Both locations found meeting space, so the chapters exist, but the canteens are lost. Then, there was Post 782 in Burlington, Vermont. The canteen there served vets for over a hundred years (102 to be exact), but like the others, it was lost when the property had to be sold. This is happening much too much nowadays.


I’ve lectured in past articles about the benefits and qualities of a good neighborhood bar. They are community centers, safe spaces, and meeting rooms. They offer therapy, conversation, and fellowship—all the things those VFW Post canteens offered. So what’s the big deal? Can’t these vets find another place to drink?

Sure, other bars offer a lot of the same merits, but at the VFW canteen, the people there know what one another has gone through. The locations and timestamps of the conflicts may be different, but each person in there has experienced the horrors of combat. They know what it’s like to experience the loss of comrades and the crushing guilt of surviving.

In the US right now, about 22 veterans commit suicide every day. Oftentimes, these tragedies can be avoided by just having someone to talk to. That’s why the VFW Post canteens are so important.

If you have friends who are vets but are not members, encourage them to join the local VFW. Those canteens—bars by another name—have an important duty to serve. If your friend joins, have them take you along with them to have a drink. Then raise a glass to that friend and all those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.