VFWs and Legion halls in York County, across country struggling a year into pandemic
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Paul Guilbeault knew the writing was on the wall for the last Veterans of Foreign Wars post in this city south of Boston when businesses across Massachusetts were ordered to close as the coronavirus pandemic took hold last March.
Within six months, the 90-year-old Korean War vet was proven right. VFW Post 3260 in New Bedford, a chapter of the national fraternity of war vets established in 1935, had surrendered its charter and sold the hall to a church.
"The economic shutdown is what killed us," said Guilbeault, who has overseen the post's finances for years. "There's no way in the world that we could make it. A lot of these posts are barely hanging on. Most don't make a huge profit."
Local bars and halls run by VFW and American Legion posts — those community staples where vets commiserate over beers and people celebrate weddings and other milestones — were already struggling when the pandemic hit. After years of declining membership, restrictions meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 became a death blow for many.
The closures have added to the misery from a pandemic that's hit military veterans hard. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recently estimated the death toll in its facilities alone was approaching 11,000.
In many states, veterans posts — like other bars and event halls — were ordered to close last spring. Their supporters argued that the spaces serve a greater community purpose than their for-profit counterparts and should have been allowed to reopen sooner.
They say many posts quickly pivoted their community service efforts to respond to the pandemic. In Lakeview, Michigan, VFW Post 3701 made hundreds of masks for workers and operated blood drives with the Red Cross. In Queens, New York, American Legion Post 483 ran a food pantry that fed thousands. And posts from Connecticut to North Carolina have been hosting vaccine registration drives and clinics.
Community-wide loss: Here in York County, the director of the county's Department of Veterans Affairs said it's important to remember that the suspension of veterans organizations' normal activities resulted in the loss of not only the social spaces for veterans but also those organizations' support for the whole community.
"American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts have been a bedrock of charitable giving — extensive amounts of both time and money — in their own communities, supporting our youth, schools and many local services," Terry Gendron said in an email Monday.
At the Shiloh American Legion Post 791 in West Manchester Township, about 230 veterans and their families receive a monthly box of food through the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank's MilitaryShare program, said coordinator Donna Monfelt, who also serves as president of the auxiliary.
The Legion donates to several projects and organizations in the community, she said, and recently helped support a veterans PTSD program in Mount Wolf.
When Pennsylvania's statewide COVID-19 mitigation orders went into effect last March, the Legion had to suspend the MilitaryShare food program for three months, Monfelt said.
The closure also made life difficult for the veterans who go to the Legion for company and connection, because veterans are often most comfortable around other veterans, she said.
"The legion is more than a bar and more than the restaurant area," Monfelt said. "It’s a home for veterans. Sometimes these veterans, that's the only people they get to talk to or see all day long."
Veterans' supporters across the country echoed that concern.
"They can talk about things here that happened to them in the war that they'd never say to their psychiatrist or even their families," said Harold Durr, commander of American Legion Post 1 in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Like a number of posts nationwide, Durr says, his facility qualified for federal and local pandemic relief, though most of it could only be used to cover employee salaries, not utilities and other expenses.
He says the shuttered post, which includes a bar and hall, has largely relied on donations to pay monthly costs.
"We've had a rough go," says the 75-year-old Navy vet, who served in the Vietnam War. "But we've got to stay open. We've existed for 100 years. There's no way we can let it close."
Workaround: How many vets halls and bars have permanently shuttered or risk closure because of the pandemic is hard to quantify.
The national VFW and American Legion organizations say the number of posts that dissolved completely last year was at or lower than in previous years. But the organizations say they do not track bars and halls because they are locally controlled.
Many posts, they say, do not run halls or bars. Still, both organizations launched emergency grant programs last fall, doling out thousands of dollars to hundreds of posts to help cover facility costs and other expenses.
"A post could conceivably lose these things and still continue as a post," said John Raughter, spokesman for the Indianapolis-based American Legion.
Some facilities have found workarounds to keep bringing in money, which goes to a wide range of community work, from hosting free lunches for disabled veterans to sponsoring high school ROTC programs and offering free gathering space for Scout troops and other groups.
Members of the VFW Post 2718 on Long Island, New York, have been dipping into reserves and organizing fundraisers until they can fully reopen their hall. Their next effort is a first-time Mother's Day plant sale, said John McManamy, a former post commander.
In Massachusetts, the New Bedford post is the only one that's dissolved for pandemic-related reasons so far, but the state risks losing some 20% of its VFW buildings if they are forced to remain closed into the crucial summer months, said Bill LeBeau, head of the VFW Massachusetts, which oversees local posts.
Closing VFW Post 3260 in the historic fishing port city some 60 miles (97 kilometers) south of Boston has been bittersweet for longtime members.
Dennis Pelletier, a 75-year-old Marine who served in Vietnam, had his wedding reception at the hall in 1967, the year it opened. He's been a dues-paying member pretty much ever since.
"It's been a part of my whole adult life," Pelletier said. "It's been a second home at times."
But like VFW posts nationwide, the New Bedford hall struggled to draw new members. In the '60s, it had more than 1,000 paying members; by last year, it had roughly 100, the majority in their 70s and 80s.
"The stigma of just being a bar is hard to overcome," said Delfino Garcia, the post's last commander. "Younger vets want something different. You've got to be more family-oriented. You've got to make it more hospitable. VFWs are struggling to adapt to that new reality."
Guilbeault, who joined the post in 1956 after serving in the Air Force, has no regrets about winding things down.
With mortgage payments and other bills mounting, he had put in more than $5,000 of his own savings in those final days. He eventually recouped the money when the building's sale was finalized in September, and the remaining profits went to the state VFW.
"In a way, it's been a blessing to let it go," Guilbeault said. "If we'd kept going, we'd still be closed. There was no sense keeping it open. All we were doing was accumulating debt, debt, debt, debt."
— York Dispatch reporter Lindsey O'Laughlin contributed to this report.