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‘Not just another bar’: How the VFW and American Legion serve their communities

Several people were recognized at the Mantua VFW late last month for their contributions to the community. They included a police officer of the year, teacher of the year and citizens of the year.

Joe Heitman, chairman of the township’s Veterans Commission, described how the awards and other programs it sponsors benefit the community, but also amplify the work done by the VFW itself.

” … It helps dispel the image that we’re just another bar,” he explained. “We want to promote the image that we’re a part of the community.”

There is more to VFW and American Legion posts than pancake breakfasts and spaghetti dinners. First and foremost, both groups host gathering places for vets to find support and camaraderie, and they are probably the most well-known military organizations in the  country. 

“The posts are places where the deep bonds begun in foxholes overseas can be woven stronger, where generations have not only healed, but chosen to give back to their communities,” notes military.com.   

Established after the U.S. got involved in foreign wars abroad, both organizations do similar work – namely advocating for veterans – and community outreach; only their requirements for membership differ.

Eligibility for American Legion membership is limited to those honorably discharged and current personnel of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard or Air Force who have served at least one day of active service from World War I to the Gulf War, and more recent conflicts that began in 1990 with the Gulf War.

To be a member of the VFW, an individual must be a U.S. citizen or citizen with an honorary certificate from the military or be serving in the same service branches as the American Legion. Membership also requires military service overseas during an operation or conflict and decoration with the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Campaign Medal or ribbon.

As of December, the number of VFW and its auxiliary members was 1.4 million, with 5,667  posts around the world. Legion members number nearly 2 million in more than 12,000 posts around the country.

But as veterans have aged, support groups for a younger generation of soldiers like Vietnam Veterans of America, Student Veterans of America and the Wounded Warriors Project are catering to different needs, and many traditional VFW and the American Legion groups have felt the effects, including closing posts.

“The newer organizations reflect cultural shifts in a smaller community of younger and increasingly diverse veterans who are replacing the older, predominantly male veterans,” the New York Times noted in 2019. 

Those that remain, though, are still serving the community, with outreach that includes food drives and scholarship programs, and in many places, VFW and Legion posts remain affordable venues for other groups, notes military.com.

“They bring veterans together, and through social, service and charitable opportunities, veterans can lead more meaningful and fulfilling lives and overcome loneliness, defeat purposelessness, and continue to make a difference in this world,” wrote Charles Pickett, of the American Legion in New Haven, Connecticut.

In Mantua, the VFW also boasts an honor guard that participates in township events like the annual Memorial Day parade. 

“This (the guard) and the awards ceremony,” Heitman said, “are our opportunity to show we care about our municipality and county.”

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