'The fight after the fight'

Christine Stephenson/The Herald
Navy veteran Jeremy Mundy, of Dubois, is a member of Jasper VFW Post 673. He and other veterans are fighting to keep the post alive by recruiting younger members. VFWs and other military organizations across the country are struggling to stay afloat, especially in the aftermath of a pandemic.

By CHRISTINE STEPHENSON
cstephenson@dcherald.com

JASPER — Not many people know that much about VFW Post 673.

When people imagine Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, some imagine a dark, dingy bar that isn’t very welcoming to people other than the veteran members, the Jasper members agreed, because that’s how it used to be.

The Jasper post is working daily to fight against that stereotype. It has karaoke nights, activities for families like Easter egg hunts and is open to the public at least a week out of every month. The room where they gather is open, brightly-lit and cheerful. Every Thursday, it’s filled with vets who gather to grab a beer, tell stories — either about their active duty or just life in general — and spend time with people who understand one another.

This isn’t just to make others feel welcome at the post, though. It’s an urgent attempt to save themselves.

“We’ve fought hard for all of this, but if new members don’t join, we could lose it all,” Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient Donnie Kluemper said.

As little as a decade ago, the post had more than 1,000 members. As of this month, it has 341. Older members are dying or cannot be active members anymore, and not enough younger veterans are joining in their place.

It’s not just the Jasper VFW struggling. It’s veteran-centered organizations, including American Legions, across the country. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem.

VFW and American Legion posts serve as community pillars for veterans who return from duty and are left to readjust to society by themselves, often struggling financially, physically and mentally.

When Navy veteran Jeremy Mundy of Dubois returned from duty, his Veterans Affairs benefits were fought for by the VFW, which allowed him to go back and get his bachelor’s and master’s degree. They helped him rebuild. So he wrote the check to become a life member.

“It’s more than worth the $300,” he said.

Beyond the community the posts provide, they’re politically vital, too. The fewer VFW members there are, the more difficult it is to lobby for benefits to Congress. Without that lobbying power, the veterans could potentially lose things like health care benefits, something vital for everyone but especially for those who have served in war and now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, the effects of Agent Orange, burn pit exposure or other medical problems.

“When you have numbers, you’re more likely to be heard,” said Dubois Circuit Judge Nathan Verkamp, who is a Navy veteran.

Younger members such as Mundy, 49, are fighting to keep the VFW afloat by recruiting new members, such as those who have served in the Gulf War and Afghanistan. It’s harder than it seems, though — many have children and not much free time, and others simply don’t feel like they’re welcome to join because of the stigma that has surrounded the posts for years. Additionally, veterans have to have a campaign ribbon to qualify for VFWs, whereas any vet can join American Legion posts.

The Jasper post moved locations in 2018 because members couldn’t afford the old place. Since then, they remodeled, started organizing more activities for families and the general public at the new place off Newton Street and felt like this could be a turning point for them. Then COVID-19 hit.

“We got the ball rolling and then COVID happened,” Mundy said. “So now we’ve got the ball back out, and we’re kicking the ball real hard.”

This past year, the post missed events for Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Strassenfest, sponsoring the Jasper Youth Baseball team for the first time since 1955, providing meals to nursing home residents and providing graveside rites and their annual fundraiser selling Buddy Poppy flowers. The post itself closed three times when the county was in the red COVID-19 advisory level and went several months without any income.

This also meant that members couldn’t gather to spend time together outside of committees.

Family means everything to Mundy, especially his wife and daughter, but there’s just something about being in the VFW with the other veterans that’s irreplaceable.

“You could have served four years ago or 20 years ago, and even though we served at different times, we get each other,” he said. “I have memories here that I’ll never forget.”

An average of 18 to 22 veterans commit suicide every day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even those who have seemingly acclimated once coming back from duty still struggle to some extent, Mundy said.

“In your mind, it might not seem like much has changed,” Mundy said, “but you're a different person.”

To be considered full, the Jasper VFW has to reach 347 members. It may seem like a small feat, but even recruiting just a few people has proven difficult.

On a Thursday evening in April, Mundy sat at a table with several other veterans talking about what the VFW means to them and what they need to do to survive.

Some were more outspoken while Navy veteran Austin Ellis, the youngest one at the table by several years, mostly just sat back and listened. Finally, when someone asked Ellis what his thoughts were, he smiled slightly and summed up a lot of what the others were feeling into one sentence.

“We have to continue the fight after the fight,” he said.




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