TAKOMA PARK, Md. (AP) - For more than 15 years, Bob Patten passed the little block building near his house - the one with the anti-aircraft gun in the parking lot - without going inside. A self-described typical Takoma Park liberal (“retired peace activist turned bicycle transportation planner”), he’d never had much reason to pay a call on the town’s tiny VFW post.
Now he’s become something of a regular. In the past year, he’s been to two concerts, a birthday party and a fundraiser for a nonprofit group in the one-room bar, downing $1.75 drafts alongside the former Marines, soldiers and other veterans who have been coming for years.
“The vibe I get is that they are very welcoming of the community coming in,” Patten, 56, said. “I biked past that place a thousand times and wondered if there were enough veterans in Takoma Park to sustain it.”
Turns out, there were not. Which is why non-vets in town have seen the doors suddenly swing wide for them. Takoma Park’s 92-year-old Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 350 is hoping a tie-dyed neighborhood with a taste for microbrew can help keep the lights on in a room hung with POW flags and Bud Lite neon.
“If we had to rely on members, we wouldn’t exist anymore,” said Mike Casey, the post’s commander, its bartender and a Vietnam vet and retired union electrician. “These events are keeping us going.”
The old-timers say they welcome the boost. But some worry that the influx of outsiders who never wore the uniform will water down the post’s longtime identity as a military hangout.
“We’ve got to remember what the VFW is for,” said Rich Fales, a former head of Post 350 and a soon-to-be district commander. “It’s for veterans to come in and associate with veterans. I’m happy to see all the interest, but we have to be careful how we do this.”
Membership has been plummeting at halls around the country for decades. The aging of the World War II and Korean War generations and the rise of social media as a tool for fellowship among younger warriors have shrunk the VFW‘S rolls from 2.1 million to 1.4 million since 1990. More than 3,000 posts have closed.
At Post 350, vets wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan seeking a respite from the therapy at nearby Walter Reed Army Medical Center provided a trickle of new members in recent years. But most moved back home, and the hospital itself decamped to Bethesda in 2011.
“On paper, we’ve got more than 100 members, but we have a hard time getting eight guys in here for a meeting,” Casey said. “When these young guys get out of the Army, they want to go where they’ll meet young girls, and that’s not the VFW.”
Many VFWs have event halls they rent for weddings and dances. But Post 350 consists almost entirely of a 30-seat bar, with a stage at one end and a Keno screen at the other. Except for during the annual crab feast and pig roast in the backyard, not many visitors made it onto the premises.
But in 2012, a group of neighbors asked Casey if they could hold a little rock concert at the post. The group, Treehouse Concerts, had been hosting musical acts in Takoma Park living rooms. Now it wanted a bigger venue. Casey charged them no rent and counted on the hundred or so guests to spend freely at the bar.
“A couple of those a month and we can fill the bank account up,” Casey said.