Around 100 veterans and their family members gathered outside VFW Post 8541 Monday morning with a statement to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and Gov. Greg Abbott: ‘Reopen our posts.’ 

More than 200 of Texas’ 293 Veterans of Foreign Wars posts have been closed since June 26, when Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order reversing previous steps that had allowed Texas bars and tubing businesses to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Bars are defined by a Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) standard as any licensed business whose alcohol sales constitute more than half its gross receipts. The move shut down most of the VFW posts in Texas.

After sending several letters to state leaders and speaking with news organizations about the closure of VFW posts, veterans were hopeful they’d get a positive response, said Bill Smith, commander of VFW Post 8541 on Austin Highway. 

“The State VFW was hoping we could have opened this weekend after a meeting with TABC,” Smith said. “It did not happen … [TABC] did little to nothing to assist us in continuing our great tradition of supporting veterans.”

VFW Post 8541 Commander Bill Smith (left) speaks with fellow veteran Bill Hyatt as they call for Gov. Greg Abbott to reopen more than 200 VFW posts across Texas. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The rally, which drew members from VFWs all around the San Antonio area, including veterans from Universal City and Schertz, focused on how posts serve veterans in addition to serving alcohol.

In a Friday news release, the TABC said the commission is working with veterans to assist service groups such as the VFW and the American Legion. It said a new initiative, developed by TABC, the VFW, and state elected officials, “provides multiple options for veterans’ services groups looking to reopen their doors”: temporarily suspend alcoholic beverage licenses, restructure licensed VFW premises so bars are in separate buildings or areas, or operate as a restaurant.

In the release, TABC Executive Director Bentley Nettles, an Army veteran, said the initiative was part of an overall agency strategy to serve veterans.

“TABC is grateful for the support of the VFW and the governor as we begin the statewide rollout of this program,” he said. “Helping those who have served our country falls in line with TABC’s core value of customer service, and I appreciate any opportunity to support our veterans.”

Smith said the release didn’t offer anything reasonable or new – TABC was simply “pretending to work with” veterans. VFW posts had been offered the same three options as far back as July, he said. 

“It’s not anything different than what they’ve been saying,” Smith said.

The first option would mean VFWs would have no steady source of income and might have to wait 90 days after the suspension to serve alcohol again, Smith said. The second would still leave parts of their posts closed or could require costly construction, and the third would mean new restaurant-related duties and expenses, he said. VFW posts would have to achieve food sales of at least 51 percent of gross receipts to be in compliance with state regulations.

Wielding “veterans are essential” posters, fellow veterans of Smith and other VFW organizers showed up Monday to ask Abbott to make an exception that would allow VFW posts to reopen.

It feels like restaurants have more power than the local VFWs to operate – and are doing so for profit rather than to help a vulnerable community, said Armando Gonzales, commander of Texas Veterans of Foreign Wars District 20. 

Gonzales said the mental health and emotional support services VFWs support to veterans is invaluable, helping bring down the veteran suicide rate and giving servicemen a sense of camaraderie. 

Bob Austin, 91, said he’s been a member at VFW Post 8541 since it opened in the early 1970s. With his adult children living in Florida, the Army National Guard veteran said he would come to the post several times a week to socialize.

“This is the only place I can come,” Austin said from behind a blue surgical mask. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do if it stays closed much longer.”

Bob Austin sits in front of the doors of the shuttered VFW Post 8541, where he once socialized with fellow veterans. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

VFW Post 8541 member Mia Smith said after becoming a widow four years ago, the VFW is what saved her life. Her fellow members helped her after her husband died, she said. 

“These people are my family,” she said. “They took me in and helped me when no one else would.”

Bill Smith said other states around the country are actively working with veterans or have already reopened their VFW posts. Texas has not, he said. 

Smith said he hopes state leaders hear veterans’ “unified voice” that VFWs are more than a bar, they are essential veterans services. 

“We are being treated no differently than bars and yet we are so much more than just a canteen,” he said.

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...