In their standard navy blue polo shirts and khaki pants, members of the rapidly growing Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8973 have been a common sight at Memorial Day observances this year in the New Orleans area.
They’ve gone as a group to ceremonies at the National World War II Museum, local churches, the Southeast Louisiana War Veterans Home in Reserve and Restlawn Park cemetery’s annual ceremony in Avondale, where flags on two of the cemetery’s four flagpoles were raised by members of the post, which also donated the poles.
By the end of the year, members expect the post’s membership to surpass 200, an astronomical increase since 2009, when the post had two active members, including Marshall Hevron. The post’s growth is the most rapid of any Louisiana VFW chapter and is likely one of the fastest of any post in the United States.
Hevron, a Marine who did a tour of Iraq, said he joined the organization partly because, as he got off the plane from Iraq in early 2005, another returning soldier said to him, “I guess the next time I’ll see you will be at the VFW hall.”
It was meant as a joke, Hevron said, but nevertheless, he joined the only remaining VFW hall on the east bank of New Orleans, at Annunciation and Lyons streets. (Two other posts remain on the east bank, but both have relatively small memberships and have no halls.)
Over the next four years, Hevron attended meetings sporadically and became part of a fast-dwindling group, as fellow members who had fought in World War II and Korea died.
Between 2009 and 2011, Hevron juggled the post along with law school. He was able to help it limp along, tripling the membership from two to six or seven people. But the post’s active membership was still in the single digits in November 2011, when Hevron sat down with Jeremy Brewer, another Marine who had served in Iraq.
“I thought, ‘We either have to go big or go home,’ ” said Hevron, who recently handed over the reins as post commander to Brewer.
They ended up diving into their efforts, putting up a Facebook page and a website and examining ways to redo the post’s hall, a former grocery store that was in a state of disrepair. At this point, the post is up to 170 members.
Most of the new members served in Iraq or Afghanistan, but it’s “a mixed bag” and includes “older guys like me,” said Larry Jones, 67, who transferred his membership from a post in Metairie.
Jones, who fought in three wars — starting with Vietnam and ending with Desert Storm — said he was drawn by the momentum of the re-energized post, its diverse membership and its leaders, Hevron and Brewer.
And now, with the post’s personnel in better shape, the next mission was to redo the Lyons Street building.
An apartment upstairs that will be available to soldiers transitioning back to civilian life was the first priority. It’s now close to finished, with new countertops and other fixtures, all donated. A few weeks ago, workers gutted the downstairs, where there will be a kitchen, an office, a conference room and a more spacious meeting hall.
Jones can’t stop admiring the efforts. “They pulled the post up by its bootstraps,” he said of Hevron and Brewer.
David Weller, who served in the Navy for 24 years as a flight officer, lives not far from the post. He recalled how, a few years ago, as he walked his dog, he saw the VFW crest on the post’s door but felt disappointed because the building was always dark.
“I thought, ‘Too bad,’ ” said Weller, who was transitioning home at the time and knew he would miss the camaraderie he’d found with his Navy colleagues. Then one day, he saw lights on. He ran home, left the dog and told his wife he was going to the post. “I expected that I’d be one of the youngest by 30 or 40 years,” said Weller, who is 44. Instead, he was one of the oldest in the room.
The post also defies national trends. Although more than 2 million veterans have now returned home from the Iraqi and Afghanistan conflicts, overall VFW membership numbers haven’t risen, said spokeswoman Randi Law. Today’s membership stands at 1.4 million, 2 million fewer than five years ago.
Jesse Cannon, 66, a new member of Post 8973, joined after his post in Amite dissolved because of lack of membership. “It was all old guys and they were dying,” he said.
Others recall walking into their first meeting fearing they’d be in a room of old geezers drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. “That’s what kept me away,” said Joe Dufrene, 46, a Navy corpsman/medic who served in Desert Storm. Instead, he said, he found “incredible camaraderie” at the new post.
Members still get a monthly dose of what Jones calls “the three B’s: beer, brats and bull,” though their beers are more often micro-brewed these days.
But rather than the stereotypical smoky, boozy hangout, there is much more substance, Cannon said, noting the broad range of veterans’ services offered at the post: job fairs, legal assistance clinics, résumé-building and jobs-skills assistance for veterans returning home, and help with Veterans Affairs medical claims, often provided by Jones, a service officer for Disabled American Veterans, another veterans advocacy group.