For 100 consecutive years Brown-Bishop Post No. 704, Veterans of Foreign Wars has contributed to helping veterans of foreign wars, their families and communities.
Members gathered this week, looking over scrapbooks and discussing the award they were given, being the only post in Kansas to receive the honor to date.
“There are other posts that are older, but they have not operated consecutively for 100 years,” VFW 704 Commander Neil Hudson said.
The accomplishment is astounding amid the fact VFW posts across the state are rapidly diminishing in number as younger veterans do not step up to fill the positions of the World War II and Korean War veterans who are dying daily.
“The bad thing about VFWs anymore is there were 23 posts in our district in 2012. Our district goes from the Oklahoma line to Fort Scott (and west) to Augusta. At this point we are down to 15, and there are about four that are going to drop out of that. We’re going to be down to almost single digits,” Hudson said. “There are seven districts in the state of Kansas now. There were nine. They’ve had to reorganize because of the decline.”
“When I was commander, there were 177 posts in the state of Kansas,” former Commander Jim Ewan said.
“We are now down to 112 in the state,” Henry Gatewood, another former commander, said.
“They are going fast,” Hudson said, adding that many veterans of Vietnam, Afghanistan and other wars are not affiliating.
Oswego’s VFW closed down as did Erie’s, and Chetopa’s post only has two members. Chanute and Pittsburg posts are on the verge of closure, too. As VFW posts close, some members move to another post still open. Some do not. Sometimes the posts are too far away for some older veterans to participate. Passing the torch to the younger generation of veterans can’t be done if they are not there and willing to accept the torch.
“I don’t know what the big issue is and why they aren’t affiliating. Maybe there are so many other things to do now than say 50-60 years ago, and they are just too busy,” Hudson said. “I know several that have got kids, and how many things are kids involved in?”
It could be as some say that they can’t afford the $45 annual dues, or a lifetime membership fee that is based on age and can be paid in installments over 12 months.
Or perhaps, they said, part of the unwillingness of younger veterans to join is based on misconceptions that all older veterans do is sit around, smoke, drink and tell old war stories.
The veterans laughed, raising a cup of black coffee, saying that was about all they drink that’s stout nowadays and they only have one member who smokes. While they do enjoy camaraderie and are there to support one another when needed, old war stories are not the general topic of conversation. They have too many other things to talk about, from caring for other veterans who may need help to maintenance of their own building and grounds to their community service projects and involvement to events.
The Brown-Bishop Post remains every active in a multitude of ways. In community service, its works include youth activities, legislative service, community service and veterans service.
Legislatively, post members attend meetings at the local and sometimes the state level.
In regard to community service, the veterans said they accept and provide hospital/medical equipment to loan to people in the community who need it.
“We have chairs and walkers and canes and commodes, shower chairs and stuff like that,” Hudson said. “The only thing we require is you use it and when you are done with it, you bring it back. That is available to anybody. You don’t have to be a veteran.”
Every year, the post also accept nominations for people in the community to be named EMT of the Year, Firefighter of the Year, Law Enforcement Officer of the Year, Nurse of the Year and Teacher of the Year. Nominees can be anyone serving in those capacities. They need not be a veteran. Nominations are accepted every September. The only problem is, the members said, they often do not get nominations in some categories.
The veterans do a flag lowering to honor those who passed.
In regard to youth, the veterans provide an Americanism Day for fourth grade students, teaching them about respect for the American flag. Every year they have about 250 to 300 students in the post for the event, during which they also serve them lunch.
Voice of Democracy essay contest for all high school students, grades 9-12 and the Patriot Pen essay contest for all grade school students sixth through eighth grade are other ways they are involved with students. Winners of those contests are given a monetary award. At the state level, if they win they can earn $1,000. If they win at the national level, it means a $25,000 scholarship. Once at that competition, students have a 1-in-55 chance of winning.
“Some of these kids, they write some pretty good essays,” Gatewood said.
Another program is the buddy poppy displays project, in which students use buddy poppies to decorate some kind of patriotic display. Buddy poppies are a small red flower symbolic of the blood shed in defense of freedom. Only one class in Chetopa has chosen to participate in recent years.
Brown-Bishop also sponsors prom and Project Prom for Parsons and Labette County High School, as well as Babe Ruth Baseball and other organizations.
Scholarships for children and grandchildren of veterans are also given to applicants.
For veterans, the post takes them to appointments. When needed, post members have built wheelchair ramps or assisted in other ways. Several were volunteering for Meals On Wheels, though they have not been assisting with that during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brown-Bishop, unlike some other remaining posts, still has an honor guard. Ewan and Hudson mentioned numerous more recent funerals across the state for which they served on the honor guard, which usually consists of a service detail, a bugler, the firing party and color guard. Sometimes there are not even enough people to make up the firing party. In the last year, April 1 to March 30, they served on the honor guard at 37 funerals, including in Nowata, Oklahoma, Mapleton and beyond.
Hudson said he is 75, and one of the younger members on the honor guard.
Admittedly, in the backs of their minds lingers the question who will be there to serve as honor guard at their funerals when the day comes if there is no longer a VFW.
“All veterans deserve some honors when they pass, and that’s what we do. We don’t care what branch of service they were in,” Hudson said. “There is no one else who does it.”
On Memorial Day, the VFW puts flags out at the cemeteries for all veterans.
“We take 2,500-plus flags and put them out at Memorial Lawn and Oakwood. We usually have a pretty good turnout with that to help. We used to do the Catholic Cemetery up north, but someone else is doing that one now. The Ace Hardware Corporation furnishes new flags every year because you always have a bunch of them that are damaged,” Hudson said.
“We put the flags out three days before Memorial Day, and we pick them up a couple days after,” Gatewood said.
The VFW also holds a Memorial Day service annually. This year the post has not yet decided if it will celebrate indoors or outdoors. A Veterans Day service is usually conducted annually too.
Another service the VFW provides is collecting and retiring old flags. There are boxes at Ace Hardware and the Parsons Municipal Building where the community can dispose of damaged flags that need retired.
“Probably our best years were 2003-2004. That’s when we got the Community Service Award,” Ewan said.
The Brown-Bishop Post has about 342 members, but half of those members do not live in the area.
“Even though you belong to this post, you can go to any post anywhere in the world,” Gatewood said. About 13 members show up to a meeting. For honor guard there are between 12 and 15. Honor guard can consist of auxiliary or post members, but auxiliary numbers have been dwindling too. Thirteen members are needed for a full honor guard. Usually there are 10 or 11 for the Brown-Bishop guard because there is always someone who can’t go for some reason.
Anyone over 16 who is related to a veteran and has the veteran’s DD-214 can join the auxiliary. Eligible relatives are spouses, parents, grandparents, sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters and siblings.
All said it would be nice for younger, more capable veterans and auxiliary-eligible relatives to step up as they are getting older and it is getting more difficult for them to do things such as the maintenance of the building and grounds.
For years Ewan, Gatewood and Hudson have been on a continuing cycle of each serving as post commander once every three years. Hudson said he has served as commander seven times and Ewan said he has served eight. The men said they are pleased that finally next year’s post leaders are younger veterans, including Neil Springer, Angela Johnson and Don Burris.
Ewan said the most important aspect of the VFW is veterans being there to take care of other veterans, and it gives veterans someplace to come out and socialize and have the opportunity to be with others who have had the same experiences they have had and understand.
“We want to be there to provide services for them, like the hospital beds, or we can get in touch with the VA (Veterans Affairs) out at Wichita if they need to have an appointment, or we’ve got information if they are working on disability. Like Jim said, it’s just taking care of the veterans.
“If this wasn’t here, other than people we know at the state, there is nothing,” Gatewood said.
The fewer the VFW posts, the fewer the resources and support for veterans.
“One of the most important things I have seen about this post here is, they work together,” Ewan said.
They hope more younger veterans, as their children have grown and their obligations to other commitments decrease, will step up to become members. Gatewood said the post is big enough that younger ones could even bring their children and they could have someone babysit them while they are having a meeting. He said they even feed meals at their meetings, though COVID-19 has halted that temporarily.
The older members are willing to accept change, they said.
“Change is good, but you have to get them in here to change it,” Gatewood said.