In Takoma Park, a fading VFW post gets a boost from its tie-dyed neighbors

For more than 15 years, Bob Patten passed the little block building near his house — the one with the antiaircraft gun in the parking lot — without going inside. A self-described typical Takoma Park liberal (“retired peace activist turned bicycle transportation planner”), he’d never had much reason to pay a call on the town’s tiny VFW post.

Now he’s become something of a regular. In the past year, he’s been to two concerts, a birthday party and a fundraiser for a nonprofit group in the one-room bar, downing $1.75 drafts alongside the former Marines, soldiers and other veterans who have been coming for years.

“The vibe I get is that they are very welcoming of the community coming in,” Patten, 56, said. “I biked past that place a thousand times and wondered if there were enough veterans in Takoma Park to sustain it.”

Turns out, there were not. Which is why non-vets in town have seen the doors suddenly swing wide for them. Takoma Park’s 92-year-old Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 350 is hoping a tie-dyed neighborhood with a taste for microbrew can help keep the lights on in a room hung with POW flags and Bud Lite neon.

“If we had to rely on members, we wouldn’t exist anymore,” said Mike Casey, the post’s commander, its bartender and a Vietnam vet and retired union electrician. “These events are keeping us going.”

The old-timers say they welcome the boost. But some worry that the influx of outsiders who never wore the uniform will water down the post’s longtime identity as a military hangout.

“We’ve got to remember what the VFW is for,” said Rich Fales, a former head of Post 350 and a soon-to-be district commander. “It’s for veterans to come in and associate with veterans. I’m happy to see all the interest, but we have to be careful how we do this.”

Membership has been plummeting at halls around the country for decades. The aging of the World War II and Korean War generations and the rise of social media as a tool for fellowship among younger warriors have shrunk the VFW’S rolls from 2.1 million to 1.4 million since 1990. More than 3,000 posts have closed.

“We’ve dropped under 7,000 posts,” said Randi Law, spokeswoman for VFW national headquarters in Kansas City. “Commanders need to adapt and evolve to keep the doors open.”

At Post 350, vets wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan seeking a respite from the therapy at nearby Walter Reed Army Medical Center provided a trickle of new members in recent years. But most moved back home, and the hospital itself decamped to Bethesda in 2011.

“On paper, we’ve got more than 100 members, but we have a hard time getting eight guys in here for a meeting,” Casey said. “When these young guys get out of the Army, they want to go where they’ll meet young girls, and that’s not the VFW.”

Many VFWs have event halls they rent for weddings and dances. But Post 350 consists almost entirely of a 30-seat bar, with a stage at one end and a Keno screen at the other. Except for during the annual crab feast and pig roast in the back yard, not many visitors made it onto the premises.

But in 2012, a group of neighbors asked Casey if they could hold a little rock concert at the post. The group, Treehouse Concerts, had been hosting musical acts in Takoma Park living rooms. Now it wanted a bigger venue. Casey charged them no rent and counted on the hundred or so guests to spend freely at the bar.

It worked. The place was packed, and Casey and two bartenders raced to fill orders until the late hours. The contrast to a typical Saturday, when Casey sometimes locks up by 8 p.m, was stark.

“A couple of those a month and we can fill the bank account up,” Casey said.

On a recent Saturday, the act was Spirit Family Reunion, a New York-based roots band. A Prius with an “I Bark for Obama” sticker pulled in beside a Dodge pickup with a Marine decal on the window. Inside, where there is now a Sierra Nevada tap next to the Budweiser, Casey hoped to sell enough booze to pay for the $2,800 cooler repair he’d put on his personal credit card that afternoon.

“It’s kind of gospel bluegrass” is how concert organizer Pete Mara, a scientist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, described the band to Fales, who was sitting at the bar wearing a Desert Storm cap.

“I might just stick around for that,” Fales said.

Regular members are always admitted without paying a cover charge, and many — but not all — have professed to enjoy the shows, which have included rockabilly, mountain music and one rap-bluegrass act from Brooklyn.

With more visitors have come more requests to use the place. The local Takoma Foundation held a fundraiser; a group of neighbors threw a Halloween party; a rock band from Blair High School put on a show, leaving it to their parents to run up the bar tabs the club needs to make such events profitable. The post has even recruited a few new members from veterans who have come for the events.

Last year, Bill Samuel started coming once a month with a dozen or so neighborhood friends (a military doctor and VFW member among them) as part of what Samuel describes as an all-male book club that doesn’t bother with books.

“We talk about work, family, sports and drink very inexpensive beer,” said Samuel, government affairs director for the AFL-CIO. “The place is unhurried and friendly. It’s kind of what people moved to Takoma Park for in the first place.”

Cole Turner, who has been a regular at Post 350 for more than 20 years, said, “I love seeing these people. I love the ka-ching of the cash register.”

The busy nights remind him of better days, Turner said, when the bar would open at 10 a.m. and bustle till closing. The post ran regular shuttle vans to Walter Reed and the Old Soldiers Home off North Capitol Street NE.

But during a recent Thursday happy hour, Cole sat in a nearly empty hall with two other patrons and did what regulars do: Tell stories they have told before.

Turner, an amateur barber, recalled the botched trim he gave one of his pals in the yard out back. “I’d had a couple of highballs,” he admitted. “Finally I just took the razor and ran it up the back of his head. Soon he was bald.”

“And not happy,” Casey said over the laughter.

“It was cold that day, yeah,” said Turner.

The VFW does a lot for veterans: negotiates for their benefits with Veterans Affairs, provides emergency assistance and scholarships, lobbies on Capitol Hill. Posts collect medical gear and money to give to veterans and charities. A few times a year, members dispose of old American flags gathered from around their communities, burning them with the proper ceremony.

But maybe no service is more valuable than the comfortable fellowship they provide on VFW bar stools. And that’s what some members worry will be diluted if too many outsiders come in.

Fales hails the financial boost from the outside events, many of which he has attended. But he and Casey (both of whom have spent thousands of their own money paying post bills) disagree on just how open to be. Casey has gotten in trouble with VFW brass in the past for inviting nonmembers to come in whenever they want. At Saturday’s concert, he handed out vouchers for a free future beer.

That goes too far, Fales says. “There are rules. We could lose our charter.”

Posts across the country are struggling to find a balance between serving members and opening to the public, according to Law, the national VFW spokeswoman. Posts have built swimming pools and picnic areas to attract families, she said. Some offer child care. Many have banned smoking, even where local law doesn’t require it.

“A lot of them are now really depending on community involvement,” Law said.

At Post 350, they hope to thread the needle with a new Men’s Auxiliary Group that would offer a kind of second-class membership to locals who want to spend more time at the VFW. Instead of being veterans themselves, the auxiliaries could be the sons or grandsons of someone who has served abroad. The post accepted its first two applications last week.

Patten, the former peace activist, thinks there will be a lot of interest. “I think what you’d find among the lefties in Takoma Park is that we should get to know these guys,” he said. “They’ve endured a lot for us.”

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
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