It used to be pretty loud in the canteen at night. People would line up to play pool or crowd the bar for another drink.
On Nov. 2, though, bartender Ted Cooper had only one customer. By January, the place will be empty.
Without the funds to pay rent, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9862 in Gaithersburg will shut its meeting place on North Frederick Avenue after 36 years.
“It’s a sad situation for the members, but then again, the members have to support the place,” Cooper said.
The charter itself will not close, even though it doesn’t have a place to meet, said T.C. Williams, who runs the canteen and is senior vice commander of Post 9862, one of the four posts in Montgomery County that make up District 2 in the VFW Maryland organization.
He and Keith Kaider, the post commander, hope to find a new place to rent within a year, they said.
To enter the canteen, a 4,000-square-foot space below a 7-Eleven, you either had to be one of the 346 members of Post 9862 or a member had to sign you in.
Plaques and framed awards recognizing the duty and volunteer work of members and veterans organizations hang on the wall with other memorabilia in the dimly lit room. There is a pool table, round tables with chairs and a long bar.
Meetings have been held once a month in a cafeteria attached to the canteen, where the group also hosts bingo and shrimp feasts for the public. In the kitchen, women’s auxiliary members would cook up hamburgers and hot dogs.
“It was our social hub,” Kaider said.
Unlike most veterans organizations, to qualify for Veterans of Foreign Wars status, a person must have served in a combat zone during a foreign war —not just have been a member of the military.
The national organization was established in 1899 after the Spanish-American War to advocate for veterans benefits and to give veterans a voice, said Jerry Newberry, the organization’s director of communications.
Camaraderie among members, who have all been in a combat zone, is one of the greatest benefits of joining, Newberry said.
“We have been there, and we understand the combat experience, and that is important to someone coming home,” he said.
Williams and Kaider served in Vietnam; Williams was in the Air Force and Kaider was in the Navy. Cooper served in the Marines.
Members of Post 9862 have done many service projects since the post was established. They have sent books, DVDs, toiletries and other items to units serving in Iraq; raised $5,000 for Operation Uplink, a program that provides free phone cards to the troops; supported Gaithersburg High School’s Naval Junior ROTC; given an annual college scholarship to seniors in Gaithersburg high schools; and supported other causes such as those for wounded warriors.
The post made its money from canteen sales, bingo operations, parties and raffles, Williams said.
It costs $25 to become a member for a year. Lifetime membership, which varies depending on age, is, at most, $425, so that fee was not a major revenue source.
Each month expenses including rent, utilities and taxes cost about $12,000, Kaider said. Rent increases 5 percent a year. The post will vacate next month, although its lease isn’t up until 2017.
Since 2008, the post’s membership has dropped from 414 to 346. Fewer than 10 people attend monthly meetings, and only the “regulars” hang out at the bar — which was the main source of revenue, Williams said.
Older members have died or moved away, and the new veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t interested in joining, Williams said.
“They are trying to get their careers and their families started,” Williams said. “They are trying to get their lives together.”
Those veterans have started their own organizations, such as Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which only accepts people who have served in those wars.
The problems are emblematic of veterans organizations across the country, said Williams, who is also a member of the American Legion, the Fleet Reserve Association and the Military Officers Association of America.
At meetings of all of the organizations, he said he hears about posts closing.
The number of posts across the world has decreased by about 28 percent since 1992, when the number peaked at 10,500; now, there are 7,600 posts, Newberry said.
Last year, there were 25,153 VFW members in Maryland; this year there are probably 23,000 to 24,000, said Denise Perry, VFW Maryland’s quartermaster.
The decrease is mainly because of the poor economy, but also because the posts are struggling to maintain donations and new members, Perry said. The median age of members is close to 70, she said.
In the past 20 years, about six posts have closed in the county, Williams said, and there used to be posts in Damascus, Poolesville and Germantown.
In District 2, which includes posts in Gaithersburg, Takoma Park, Silver Spring and Cabin John, membership has dropped since 2008 from about 1,496 members to about 1,200, Williams said.
While Post 9862 still hopes to recruit new members, closing the canteen will make that harder, Kaider said. In its busy days, the place was a draw for new members, he said.
“I do worry about the fact that if we don’t have a place for them to come, we will get even less people,” Kaider said. “The chance of enticing others to join is unlikely.”