Veterans of Foreign Wars posts across the country are dying with their members, and local posts are no exception to the trend.
Pennsylvania lost close to 5,000 VFW members in the last year and had to close down about 60 posts across the state, according to Martin Puchi, the district commander for posts in Washington and Greene counties.
“They’re dying,” he said. “We’re losing a member from our post district every week.”
Puchi, a 72-year-old Marine, served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1971. He’s been the commander of the VFW Memorial Post 553 in Strabane for close to 20 years, and has served as district commander for the last 10.
“Since I’ve been district commander, we started out with 24 posts,” he said. “We’re down to 16.”
In September, Puchi had to close one of two posts in Canonsburg, VFW Post 226. He said they had seven regular members left, but the COVID-19 pandemic shut them down for half the year. They couldn’t make beer sales or do any fundraisers.
“It was no fault of their own,” Puchi said. “They were a small post to begin with, and they were shut down for so long.”
Puchi said the pandemic has left many VFW posts “hanging on by a thread” because of the social nature of their funding.
“If this keeps up, we’re going to have to close more up,” he said. “My opinion is that in 10 years there won’t be a VFW.”
Even the posts that aren’t struggling with funding or social memberships are struggling to keep active members – veterans who served in a conflict or a war overseas.
As older veterans from World War II die, Puchi said, they’re not able to replace them with new members. He said that nationally, about 1,000 WWII veterans are dying a day, and now, “Vietnam vets are starting to die off.
“When the veterans die off, the VFWs will go away, too,” Puchi said.
Dwindling numbers of active members is partly due, Puchi said, to the VFW national charter, which mandates that a veteran can only be a member if he or she has “seen conflict.” Puchi believes that rule should be relaxed and opened up to more veterans.
“I’ve been fighting it for years now,” he said. “I’ve had so many veterans of the military that wanted to join, but they don’t want to just be social members.”
Alex (Nob) Nakoneczny and Chuck Moyar, members of Canonsburg VFW Post 191, agreed that the charter should be changed.
“We have guys on our honor guard who give their time to come out to do military funerals with us, but they can’t be regular members because they weren’t in a war zone,” Nakoneczny said. “To me, that isn’t the way it should be.”
Moyar said another issue with diminishing numbers is that there are simply fewer veterans now than there were during WWII and Vietnam. Back in the day, Post 191 had a “couple thousand” regular members, he said. Now they have about 300.
“We get a few (Afghanistan War) and Desert Storm veterans, but they’re not equaling out what we had lost with the number of WWII vets,” Moyar said.
Another hurdle, Puchi said, is a “lack of interest” from younger generations of veterans.
“They don’t want to come in and sit around with a bunch of old men,” Puchi said. “They’d rather go to the fancy bars in Pittsburgh.”
But that’s not the case for David Gross, a 43-year-old member of Post 191 and an active-duty Air Force veteran. Though he’s been a member since before he became a veteran, his commitment to his career and family have kept him from putting more time into the VFW, Gross said.
“I’ll go down there to have a beer and watch a game,” he said. “I have two young kids and a lot on my plate right now. When you’re looking for things to do after retirement, you may have more time on your hands.”
Gross isn’t the only one. Many younger veterans have time-consuming military careers and young families to raise, making VFW membership less of a priority.
“My kids are grown up now, so I have more time to come here to hang out and socialize,” said veteran Barbara Riggar, of Bridgeville.
She’s a member of Post 191, after serving in the Air Force from 1981 to 2011. She said location means a lot for potential VFW members – people don’t want to risk a far drive home after a drink at the club.
Nakoneczny said VFWs that are doing well with younger members are typically located in “military towns” or near bases. Most of the members they have at Post 191 in Canonsburg have retired and are in their mid-60s to late 80s.
Gross suspects that a lack of time is just one of many reasons younger veterans don’t join. Some of them, he said, might not know how to join, they might not know anybody at their local post, or they would rather socialize with family or friends in other places.
“It could also be that they want to put that part of their life behind them,” Gross said.
Either way, Gross advocated for the VFWs, saying they help veterans with services and are “safe places to go with good people.”
Gross joined as a social member because his late father-in-law, Robert Terkay, was an officer there for years. Now, as a veteran of a foreign war, Gross is a regular member.
“I think people have this idea of the VFW as a place where these older guys go, but it’s a really nice, safe bar that does a lot for folks in the community,” Gross said. “Those clubs are there for the veterans, and I think they need to be a place to socialize with others who have gone through similar experiences.”
Nakoneczny and Moyar agreed that there seems to be a perception of VFW posts being an “old man’s club,” where they “sit around, drink and tell war stories.” Maybe that does occur on occasion, but Post 191 is so much more than that, they said.
“It’s not a drinking club, but that’s what people think,” Nakoneczny said.
They give away about $25,000 a year to different charitable organizations, and they participate in community parades and provide services on Veterans Day and Memorial Day. They also hold fish fry Fridays and other fundraisers throughout the year.
Nakoneczny and Moyar, both Vietnam veterans, also serve on the post’s honor guard. They’re in their early 70s, but they’re the youngest ones.
“Once we’re gone and nobody takes over, that’s it,” Nakoneczny said.
Puchi said there are “maybe three” honor guards in the entire district. He said Post 191’s is likely the largest. But Moyar said he suspects the honor guard will disappear in the next five years, as they only have five or six people showing up.
Many people would recognize the honor guard at services around Memorial Day, Veterans Day or Fourth of July parades, but many people haven’t witnessed its most important role.
“To me, one of the greatest things is taking our brother to his last resting place,” Nakoneczny said. “When our time comes, there isn’t going to be anyone to take us there.”
Post 191 averages about 70 military funerals a year, Moyar said, not just for their own members, but for any veteran.
That’s why Vietnam veteran Bill Evans, of Canonsburg, got involved with the VFW 10 years ago. He was attending his neighbor’s funeral when the honor guard came into the funeral home to do its presentation for the deceased veteran.
“I looked at my wife and said, ‘This is what I want to do,’” Evans said. “When I get involved in something, I really get involved in it.”
Evans is the current commander of Post 191. He said the social members and “tremendous support” from the community are the only reasons the post is still open and doing OK financially. Its biggest need is for members to join the honor guard so they can continue showing up for funerals.
“I’m going to do everything in my power, to the last breath I take, to make sure that keeps going,” Evans said. “I realize the world is an ugly place sometimes, but I think most people realize what good things these people do.”
When he has more time to offer, Gross said he’d like to continue those veteran- and community-based traditions at Post 191.
“As long as I’m of good health and mind, I’d love to help,” he said. “If people aren’t going to pick up the torch and carry things along, those clubs are going to die off.”
Evans said he’s “hoping and praying” that younger generations of veterans will, like Gross, get involved with VFWs when the timing is right.
“I understand there’s so many things you have to do in life,” Evans said. “I truly don’t know what the answer is, but I firmly believe that we will continue on as long as we possibly can.”
Frank Edwards’ Army unit became trapped under enemy ambush in a village in Germany and his rifle was rendered inoperative by gunfire during World War II.
Edwards grabbed a rifle from one of his dead comrades and shot his way out of trouble in Erlach while carrying several wounded U.S. soldiers to safety on April 4, 1945.
“He’s a true American hero,” said Jean Ricciuti, an auxiliary member of West Brownsville American Legion Post 940, where Edwards, 93, received his long-overdue military medals on Veterans Day.
Edwards, a retired California University of Pennsylvania professor, served in the 8th Infantry Regiment and rose to the rank of sergeant before receiving an honorable discharge June 28, 1946, West Brownsville Councilwoman Brianne Mitchell said.
She said Edwards’ lifelong friend, Leonard Siegel, and the Legion initiated a search for his military records that had gone missing. Eventually, they were discovered through the National Personal Records Center in St. Louis, Mo.
“It’s great,” Edwards said Wednesday as he was about to enter the Legion to be honored.
He received 11 medals including the Silver Star for valor in combat and Bronze Star Medal for heroic achievement.
Edwards was a history professor at Cal U., having retired in May 1998, university spokeswoman Christine Kindl said.
“I think it’s wonderful that he is receiving his medals that he is due,” said Mitchell.
COVID-19 cases continue to rise daily in Pennsylvania.
For the third time in a week, the state set a daily record, with 4,711 cases reported Wednesday, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. The statewide total stands at 243,368.
The health department also announced 59 more deaths, including two in Washington County, one in Allegheny County, and six in Westmoreland County. There were no new deaths reported in Fayette.
The deaths bring the death toll to 9,145.
In Washington County, there were 57 new cases added, raising the total to 2,693. In Greene County, an additional dozen cases were reported. Fayette County saw another 33 cases, bringing the total number to 1,247. Allegheny County now has 18,339 coronavirus cases.
Hospitalizations, too, continue to surge, with 1,938 people hospitalized with the virus.