This VFW post in Joppatowne, Md., had been renting its hall to a white supremacist for nine years, but its leaders said they didn’t know it. (Petula Dvorak/The Washington Post)
Columnist

The vets at VFW Post 5838 had a problem.

For nearly a decade, a guy named Jason had rented their hall in Joppatowne, Md., for one night every March. He told them it was for a St. Patrick’s Day heritage celebration. There would be music and food. His $400 check was good. He cleaned up afterward. Every year, it worked out.

But this year, a local news website revealed who the VFW actually had been renting to: white supremacists.

Suddenly, the post was getting emails and phone calls from people horrified that a veterans group was hosting a bunch of neo-Nazis in a barn-red Veterans of Foreign Wars hall north of Baltimore.

The vets quickly gathered for a meeting Monday night to figure out what do.

Like most VFW posts, Joppatowne Memorial Post 5838 is struggling to keep its little hall — with a fire marshal-approved capacity of 110 — afloat. With dwindling membership numbers and a new generation of vets who don’t gather at these places across the country, many posts are scrambling to find renters.

“When we rent the hall, we don’t ask all about the people,” said Robert Waag, a Korean War veteran who serves as the post’s quartermaster. “We rent to all kinds of people. Families, biker clubs. The Hell’s Angels. We rent to them.”

But Jason Tankersley, he insisted, didn’t tell them he was the head of the Maryland State Skinheads. They didn’t do business with him shirtless, I guess, or they would’ve seen his swastika and SS tattoos. And I’m assuming they never saw the National Geographic documentary “American Skinheads,” in which Tankersley is shown training other skinheads in combat and coaching them on how to recruit others to join the movement.

Tankersley didn’t return a call for comment. But Waag said he also never told them that the music they play at the hall is linked to Label 56, an aggressively racist music outlet that was home to Wade Michael Page. He’s the white power rocker who slaughtered six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin five years ago.

Now the post had to decide whether to cancel its agreement with Tankersley five days before his annual event. Even in a part of Maryland that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, they were under intense pressure to do so after a far-left socialist group, the Mid-Atlantic General Defense Committee, tipped off local media about Tankersley.

“FIRST, let me say as a Veteran I’m pretty pissed off the VFW did not do any damn research on who they rent these halls out too. I’m conservative leaning and would be just as upset if they rented it [to] PETA for a meeting (People Eating Tasty Animals),” one commenter wrote on the Dagger, the Harford County news website with a liberal bent that helped name Tankersley as the renter. “The VFW is not a place for this partisan and hate inspired crap.”

Waag said he didn’t have a problem with the post renting its hall to the Hell’s Angels.

“They clean it up, and they’re really nice to deal with,” said Waag, who rides motorcycles and joined the VFW because his bike club holds its meetings there, too.

But white supremacists? That was too much for Waag, who served in the Air Force for 15 years.

At their meeting Monday night, he and the other leaders of the post debated the American values that they fought for and some of their comrades died for. And which values they think veterans should represent.

It was an emotional discussion. But it didn’t take long for them to agree on the right thing to do. They posted their decision on the post’s Facebook page that night.

“It has been brought to our attention that a group renting our hall does not represent the values and the views of Joppatowne Memorial VFW Post 5838 and the VFW. We have cancelled the event and are in the process of returning their deposit. We sincerely apologize to our Post 5838 members and to our community for this unfortunate misunderstanding. We pledge to do a better job scrutinizing future hall rental applicants going forward.”

They were showered with praise from people such as Timi Gerson, who wrote “Thank you for standing up for real American values and for your service.”

And an Army veteran named Christopher Sanchez wrote: “Thank you the Mighty fine outstanding Veterans of VFW Post 5838 for maintaining OUR oaths to defend against all enemies of our freedom; Foreign and DOMESTIC! Proud to have served with people of such High Morale.”

The white power guys, however, called foul. Matthew Heimbach, a Maryland-born white nationalist who has spoken at the Joppatowne event in the past, called it an assault on free speech.

“It’s a sad precedent, shutting this down,” said Heimbach, who has his own page on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch site and was recently kicked off Twitter. “If it happened to Black Lives Matter, they’d be screaming bloody murder.”

Heimbach, who is very good at normalizing his hate, said the annual event isn’t a Nazi-rama. It has a St. Patrick’s Day theme, with “musical performances, Irish food, tunes.”

One of the VFW guys who helped with set up one year told Waag that was true. He saw no overt signs of neo-Nazism.

But the post’s leaders couldn’t deny who these people are — corned beef and cabbage notwithstanding.

And it didn’t take long for some of the people who’d urged the post to cancel the event to acknowledge that $400 is a big hit for a small outfit like this.

So one poster suggested sending checks. Then another said she would. And another said he already had.

Thank you for your service to America, veterans, yet again.

If you want to send them a check, too, here’s the address: VFW Post 5838, 501 Pulaski Hwy., Joppa, MD 21085-3701

Twitter: @petulad