On a recent Sunday afternoon, a cavernous multistory building atop a West Asheville hill sits mostly empty and quiet. Inside the downstairs bar at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 891, a few older veterans gather, enjoying beers and small talk. Their eyes look up toward the TV above the mirror and bottles on the back wall of the canteen, waiting for a NASCAR race to start. Across the room, pool cues rest on tables unused. Upstairs, a dance hall and kitchen are vacant, a drum kit on an otherwise unoccupied bandstand faces a sea of tables and chairs, and the room waits for Monday night’s bingo crowd.
“We used to have weekly dances, but you can’t dance with masks on,” says Larry Fowler. The post’s commander is a 30-year Air Force vet who spent another 15 years as a junior ROTC teacher in Buncombe County Schools’ Enka district. A picture of Fowler taken while he was stationed in Thailand during the Vietnam War — much younger, but sporting the same broad smile — looks out from the corner of the post’s canteen.
The COVID-19 pandemic, according to Fowler, continues to have a major impact on the post’s activities. The dances, formerly its largest source of revenue, have ceased; since January, members have run popular weekly bingo nights to keep the bills paid and support their charitable works. He estimates that membership is down 25% from before 2020, driven both by deaths among members and concerns over socializing during a pandemic.
But the bingo crowd restores some life to the event hall each week, and the post’s membership and auxiliary (family relatives connected to post members, who must have served overseas during a conflict and been discharged honorably) have stayed active in the community. Despite its currently sparse Sunday crowds and empty rooms, emphasizes Fowler, the VFW is much more than a bar.
“When people think of a place like this, they say, ‘I don’t like to go to bars.’ It’s not a bar. You could bring your mom here and you would not be embarrassed. A lot of this is children and youth, not just beers and boobs,” Fowler says with a laugh.
Making a difference
Fowler beams when talking about the charitable work the Asheville post, which opened in 1929, has done in the community. VFW 891 sponsors yearly essay contests for local students, and members visit schools to honor winners with medals, certificates and cash prizes. Local JROTC cadets are also honored regularly, as are local teachers. A five-member funeral team has offered ceremonial salutes at over 1,000 military funerals over the last 15 years.
Additionally, the post has donated $35,000 over the last six years to the Butterfly Project, a collaboration with the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville. This project’s goal is to grant last wishes to vets in hospice. (Its activities were suspended at the start of the pandemic, Fowler says, and have yet to resume.)
Fowler recounts a former Marine who wanted to die while wearing a brand-new Marine Corps dress uniform. The Butterfly Project absorbed the $900 cost to provide that wish. In another instance, the post helped arrange an unexpected wedding ceremony at the VA.
“This other guy was dying, and he wanted to remarry the wife he had loved for 65 years. He wanted to have another wedding right there at the hospital,” Fowler says. “We got the chaplain, and the nurses became bridesmaids. It was really special.”
Terry Browning is a member of VFW Post 5202 in Waynesville. Browning, also a Vietnam vet, says VFW posts assist members and their families in informal ways as well. “If you’re a member of a VFW traveling across the country and happen to have car trouble, call the VFW. They will help you, or get you some help, one way or another,” he says.
On June 25, the Waynesville post conducted a flag retirement ceremony, where members formally retire worn, tattered or damaged American flags by burning them. “You can’t put them in the trash,” says Browning. “People bring them by, and we save them all year long. We have a ceremony and invite the fire department. It’s a big community thing, a good crowd. We always have a good meal and a big celebration.”
Additionally, the Waynesville VFW purchases Christmas gifts for low-income youths each year and collects donations for a fund to support low-income families of veterans. “If there is a family that needs help, we’re right there to help them,” Browning says.
At the state level, the VFW provides veterans resource officers, to whom local chapters can refer vets to coordinate VA medical claims, navigate paperwork and connect with benefits. Nationally, the VFW lobbies Congress around veterans rights and has distributed over $10 million in scholarships to veterans and service members to continue their education since 2014.
Statewide VFW membership is over 22,000 across 138 posts, according to Charles Slater, North Carolina’s VFW quartermaster, who is based in Winston-Salem. The organization estimates its membership has grown slightly over the last four years across the state, with a 5% increase last year alone. However, member recruitment is a big concern for the Asheville and Waynesville posts.
“We need to do a better job about bringing in younger members. We have had some posts shut down in the last few years,” says Browning. Joseph Horn, state adjutant for North Carolina’s VFW, notes that Post 8013 in Cherokee may be merged with another location due to low membership. He says local posts are primarily responsible for driving their own recruitment efforts.
“We don’t have as many joining up now. A lot of the younger vets coming back from Afghanistan aren’t here, and we don’t know why,” Browning continues. “I’m 75 before long. We have to have some young people to take over.”
Fowler, 85, cites the need for younger vets to support families and work as limitations to involvement. He notes that many of Asheville’s 120 combined VFW and auxiliary members are retired and have more time to commit to the post.
Among the VFW’s younger local members is Stacie Litsenberger, an Army vet who served in the Gulf War and deployed for two tours of duty in Iraq. Despite her membership, she says she’s not active with the organization, primarily because she’s unsure about its local work and how to get involved.
“The key for these organizations is really talking with veterans and seeing what they are interested in. The organizations have to work a lot harder,” Litsenberger says. “Vets may not be seeking them out, and organizations have to spend a lot of time to get through that barrier and connect them.”
Corps of camaraderie
While the VFW’s charitable work reinforces the idea that it’s more than a bar, members say the post’s camaraderie and the comfort that comes from having a space dedicated to veterans are invaluable.
“All of us here, we’re a close knit group. We understand each other real well. We support one another all the way. We don’t show any prejudice. We don’t argue politics or religion,” says Browning of the Waynesville post, which still hosts bands on Saturday nights, as well as karaoke and bingo. “There is something going on all the time.”
The vets at the canteen in Asheville say the space is warm and welcoming. “It’s a home away from home,” says Larry Wheeler, himself a Vietnam Army vet, over a half-empty beer “It’s just a lot of good people.”
At Wheeler’s left sits Mike Bonham, who can be seen younger and shirtless in his own Vietnam-era picture that hangs near Fowler’s in the corner. “It’s family oriented and has the best waitress in town,” he says, referencing Joyce Bonham, the post’s canteen manager and, according to the guys, de facto boss. (The two were divorced five years ago but are, according to Fowler, “the best of friends.”)
“I always feel welcome,” says Gary Scott, himself not a vet but visiting as a guest. “And they have the coldest beer in town,” he adds as he lifts a bottle.
For Fowler, the social aspect of VFW events provides a vital service to its members and auxiliary, from the post’s July 4 cookout to casual Friday night gatherings. “Most of us are elderly, and some are stuck in their house. Some are widows of husbands who have passed away. We come together on Friday nights, and people just take turns donating food,” he says. “They aren’t big meals, but people just like being together. We’ve got two or three guys that never leave their house except to come here.
“Nobody’s talking war, you know. You don’t hear any war stories,” Fowler continues. “It’s quiet. You feel comfortable, the atmosphere and such. It just feels good here.”