My buddy Tetlow and I, both in our early 30s, were greeted warmly when we walked into Springfield’s only remaining VFW hall.
Two old-timers were standing behind a near-empty bar.
“We were thinking of joining the 3404,” I announced to the two men, using the post number of the building that sits at the intersection of National and Atlantic.
For just a moment, the men looked at us like lobsters were crawling out of our ears. It doesn’t happen often that two relatively young men stroll in on a Saturday night — bingo night — and ask to join the group largely made of vets from two or three wars ago.
Veterans like me and Tetlow — the new generation of American veteran — don’t really participate in these old boys clubs.
In fact, so few young vets are signing up for groups like the VFW or the American Legion that posts have been forced to close down all over the country.
That’s a shame, Tetlow and I concluded, so we sauntered into Post 3404.
We ordered Budweisers and some 50-cent popcorn as we chatted with the old-timers about what the post does for vets. War — our experiences or theirs — never really came up.
Instead, we talked Keno strategy — but still lost a combined 30 bucks playing the lottery game.
The bar and clubroom was flanked by north and south wings, both filled with folding tables and the sounds of bingo players vying for hundred-dollar pots.
The walls were covered with patriotic symbols and portraits of notable veterans with ties to the local chapter.
It wasn’t a low-lit, dingy dive bar, but it isn’t exactly a nightclub either.
A lot of vets my age envision VFW halls as places where you find leather vests clad with red, white and blue pins, full-throated coughs and embellished war stories.
Bill St. Gemme, post commander of 3404, said that’s the public perception of a lot of longtime service organizations like the VFW, American Legion or the Shriners.
“People think it’s a smoky back room for guys to go to drown their war stories and PTSD — which we know doesn’t work.” he told me.
“We’ve tried to change that.”
The post opens Saturday night bingo to the public. There’s a cafe with cheap meals. The group participates in several philanthropic endeavors, including reaching out to homeless vets or helping individual veterans cover rent or utilities. Wives and girlfriends are encouraged to join the associated Ladies Auxiliary. The post has earned several state and national awards for its service efforts.
Still, the 3404, like nearly every other post in the county, struggles to recruit young vets.
St. Gemme, a 72-year-old Vietnam veteran, and I exchanged theories.
Maybe young vets are just so very tired of war, they don’t want to be reminded of it.
Several vets from the modern era have deployed four or five times (I went to Baghdad twice, Tetlow for a single 15-month stint).
They’d probably prefer to avoid anything that resembles military — at least for awhile. I can identify with that. I’ve talked more about my military service over these last several months of writing columns than the previous five years combined.
My longtime girlfriend tells me she has learned more about my deployments from my writing than I had ever revealed to her through conversation.
Another theory: maybe young vets are making up for lost time, preferring to spend evenings and weekends with their families.
Or — and this is an awful way to look at it — too much time has passed between America’s major conflicts. The gap in age is too great. Young vets might feel like they’d be honoring old vets but never really feel like part of the club.
All of this matters, to me, for one reason. It’s a number actually — 22. That’s the conservative estimate for the number of veterans committing suicide each day.
It makes sense that places like the VFW can make a difference. Certainly, we can distribute the phone number of the Veterans Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255). We can encourage at-risk veterans to visit the Vet Center (3616 S. Campbell Ave).
But, from my experience, most veterans are too proud to ask for help. Maybe just having a place in the community where they feel welcome is enough.
Tetlow and I had fun. Satisfied the 3404 was doing what it could to help vets, we filled out the paperwork and paid the $35 in annual dues to join.
If you’re a vet whose hair is not yet gray — or gone — you ought to consider giving this place a visit, too.
Provided we are accepted, we anticipate attending regularly.
These are the views of Jess Rollins, the News-Leader’s metro columnist. Rollins, a lifelong resident of the Ozarks, has covered cops, courts, city government and other topics for the News-Leader over the last four years. He can be reached at 836-1222, firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @JessRollinsNL or by mail at 651 Boonville, Springfield MO 65806.