A camouflage-painted Humvee parked out front draws the eye to the otherwise nondescript beige building that houses Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8541.
The post hasn’t been open since June 26, when Gov. Greg Abbott issued executive orders to close all Texas bars and tubing businesses to help stanch the statewide increase of coronavirus cases.
Bars were defined by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission standard of anyone with a red 51% sign – any legally licensed business whose alcohol sales constitute more than half of its gross receipts.
Abbott’s orders caused an unforeseen consequence: any VFW post that had a red 51% sign – more than 200 of the 293 in Texas – was also forced to close its premises, Smith said.
“We have a canteen, but we’re more than a canteen,” Post Commander Bill Smith said. “The VFW offers far more than the bar.”
Most importantly, it offers veterans a home away from home – a place they can talk about their mental health without fear of being judged, Smith said.
Being unable to return to the VFW since June has been hard, said San Antonio resident and U.S. Army combat veteran Brandon, who’s been a member of the post since 2017. Brandon declined to give his last name for fear of retribution from his employer.
The 30-year-old father of three said the post being closed has taken a toll on him, and he’s seeing it affect his fellow veterans as well.
“It’s the only environment [where] all my anxiety goes away because I’m with guys of the same mentality,” he said. “I miss the camaraderie, the cohesion – nothing can replace that.”
Going out to bars or other restaurants causes him severe anxiety, making the VFW post one of the only places in which Brandon said he feels safe. Other restaurants or bars operating because they also serve food and aren’t impacted by the order are often packed with customers, he said, yet he and other vets aren’t allowed inside a private club.
“It makes no sense,” he said.
It’s an issue VFW State Commander Dick Shawver has tried to address with Gov. Greg Abbott directly. Shawver, a 70-year-old Marine veteran, said he has been involved with Texas VFWs for more than 25 years. The Ohio native lives in Flint, Texas, just south of Tyler, and originally moved to Texas in the late 1970s.
“We wrote [Abbott] two letters to let him know about this,” Shawver said. The first letter was sent in early July and never received a response, he said. The second letter was sent on Aug. 19, with local post commanders also trying to reach out to their individual congressperson. Shawver added he and other commanders are still pushing for a response from the governor.
He compared the closure of so many Texas VFWs to someone being evicted from their home without any other warning and said members wouldn’t mind not drinking on the premises for a while if it just meant they could have their building back.
“Right now we just want to be able to get into our post homes,” he said.
Smith added the post had been following social distancing safety protocols for the two weeks between the statewide shutdown and the re-closing of bars.
“We’re military; we can follow orders very well,” he said.
Getting momentarily emotional, Smith said coming to the post to play cards, dominos, darts, or pool is some of the only socialization elderly veterans have anymore. He spoke of one 97-year-old Post 8541 member who doesn’t have any family nearby.
“We’re his family,” Smith said.
If he were speaking directly to the governor, Smith said he would ask Abbott to reconsider the executive action as a blanket statement. VFWs are a sanctuary for local veterans, he said.
The post’s long-term closure may also affect its membership, Smith said, which had been gaining before the pandemic. Smith recently partnered with local video game cafe owner Smith Elizondo to create a gaming suite in VFW Post 8541 to help encourage younger veterans to come in and join the post.
The 10 high-tech computers, X-Box video game consoles, and other gaming equipment have gone unused since the suite’s completion in early July. Smith said he looks forward to a day when local vets can come back in and use it together.
He encouraged veterans and other citizens to consider writing to their local congressperson to advocate for the reopening of VFWs.
“We’re not giving up the fight till we reopen,” Shawver said. “They don’t teach you to give up in the Marine Corps.”