When one first walks into the Puyallup Valley Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2224 in Puyallup on a weekday night, the senses are simultaneously met with two distinct, yet oddly-comforting things.
There’s a subtle, musty smell — similar to an old attic — and the sound of “Wheel of Fortune” blaring on the television over the bar for the hard-of-hearing patrons.
It’s an image and longtime stereotype VFW posts all over the nation are trying to dispel as the ranks of veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam begin to pass away and veterans from more recent conflicts look to get involved in what is going on in their local veteran community. The organization still boasts more than 1.9 million members and auxiliary members worldwide.
Despite the hall’s quiet ambiance on any given night of the week, Paul Herrera, deputy commander of the Puyallup chapter, said he doesn’t think of the VFW as just a bar, rather a place for veterans and their families to come and celebrate what unites them: their service.
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“This VFW is a very family-oriented VFW,” Herrera said. “My wife is in the auxiliary, my daughter is in high school and she’s in the junior unit, and we are doing all these things together as a family. My kid was very young when I was deployed and she’s with other kids whose dads were deployed, so they have that in common.”
Furthermore, Herrera and his fellow VFW members are continuing a legacy of service to younger veterans by providing care packages to deployed service members.
“These guys grew up in (Puyallup) and they helped the Vietnam veterans,” Herrera said of World War II veterans. “And the Vietnam veterans helped the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.”
Boxes of letters dating back to the chapter’s inception in 1931 illustrate the impact of these care packages.
“I was going through some of their correspondence and I found a bunch of timeless letters,” Herrera said, referring to a letter from Dec. 7, 1934. “This is a guy from Puyallup … he said he misses home in Puyallup and in the letter he had no hope because the war in Europe was ending but the war in Japan was still going on.”
Additionally, the chapter and others like it fundraises for veteran’s memorials, volunteers in soldier’s homes, provides scholarships, donates to homeless veterans, participates in Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day events, and educates local school children about veterans, supports children’s groups like Boy Scouts of American and the Civil Air Patrol. They perform what they call random acts of patriotism.
“If we see someone flying a flag out in front of their house we give them a certificate and say thanks for the flying the flag,” Herrera said.
While the chapter is full of the patriotism and honor — much like the core values of the respective branches of service — the day-to-day clientele in the hall’s restaurant are not a reflection of today’s separating service members despite the post’s recruitment efforts and its proximity to Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The post has 705 members, but only 15 percent of those members are from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Herrera, although he says he feels that those numbers are climbing.
However, there are many possible reasons why some younger vets are shying away from the VFW.
Some of today’s veterans have never served in a conflict overseas and therefore do not qualify for VFW membership. Others sometimes feel ostracized and unwelcome in a room of perceptively gruff, predominately older males.
Recently-separated, Seattle-based Navy veteran Lindsay Zike says she’s never been to the Puyallup chapter, but she has been to VFW meetings at a Seattle VFW chapter, and felt very uncomfortable as a young veteran, a woman, and a member of the LGBTQ community.
“We are separated by four or five conflicts,” Zike said of the Seattle chapter she visited. “There is not a lot of diversity.”
Outreach directed at new veterans, she said, can be as simple as visiting student veteran organizations at local colleges and engaging the veterans on campus.
While extensive changes to outreach programs may take a while to get integrated, it is unclear what membership will look like at VFWs around the country. However, community and patriotism will continue to reign as long as veterans continue to serve each other and their communities.
“I’m proud of this VFW because of all that we do for the community,” Herrera said.