A photo that hangs on the wall inside the Fraser VFW Post 6691 shows many of the original members at a local gathering in 1947.

A photo that hangs on the wall inside the Fraser VFW Post 6691 shows many of the original members at a local gathering in 1947.

Photo provided by Fraser VFW Post 6691


Veterans groups embrace service, challenges of survival

By: Brian Louwers, Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published May 22, 2019

 Members of the Macomb County Ritual Team from the VFW’s Cpl. Walter F. Bruce Post 1146 in St. Clair Shores enjoy lunch and fellowship after a memorial ceremony in May. The team’s members include veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The post is celebrating its 85th year in 2019.

Members of the Macomb County Ritual Team from the VFW’s Cpl. Walter F. Bruce Post 1146 in St. Clair Shores enjoy lunch and fellowship after a memorial ceremony in May. The team’s members include veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The post is celebrating its 85th year in 2019.

Photo by Brian Louwers

 A photo taken between 1950 and 1955 shows many of the early leaders of the American Legion’s Stanley J. Fons Post 374 in Berkley. The post was founded in 1940.

A photo taken between 1950 and 1955 shows many of the early leaders of the American Legion’s Stanley J. Fons Post 374 in Berkley. The post was founded in 1940.

Photo provided by the American Legion’s Stanley J. Fons Post 374

METRO DETROIT — In 1966, Tim Litz returned from Vietnam a Marine, ready to get on with life. It wasn’t long before he found the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

“I was living in East Detroit at the time. Friends of my parents belonged to the Shafer-Rachelle Post over on Nine Mile,” Litz recalled. “They said, ‘You need to come over and sign up.’”

Litz, who worked in the skilled trades doing machine repair at Chrysler, later transferred to the VFW’s Village-Stinson Post in Warren. In 1981, he moved to St. Clair Shores, where he joined the VFW’s Cpl. Walter F. Bruce Post 1146.

“I didn’t really get involved until I retired and everything,” Litz said. “Then I really jumped in.”

Litz, 74, of St. Clair Shores, now holds the title of judge advocate and past commander, having led the post from 2013 to 2016. His path through the ranks and offices of an organization established to “honor the dead by helping the living” followed those made by generations of vets who came before him. 

‘More than just camaraderie’

Millions of American veterans returned home from military service to start organizations such as the VFW, the American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans, the American Veterans and the Vietnam Veterans of America. There, they found kinship and camaraderie, a sense of shared sacrifice, a place to serve the community, and a network of resources for taking care of their own. 

The VFW was founded in 1899. The American Legion was chartered in 1919, and the DAV started in 1920. The AMVETS have roots stretching back to 1944, while the VVA officially became a national nonprofit in 1978.

Each organization has specific eligibility criteria, and together they cover a wide cross section of veterans. 

World War I vets formed the backbone of the VFW, the American Legion and the DAV when a huge influx of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen returned from the Second World War in the mid-1940s.

The Bruce Post in St. Clair Shores has 1,060 members now. There were 1,875 a decade ago. 

The post had 3,000-4,000 members in the late 1940s and 1950s, and was the third largest in the country. It’s still the largest VFW post in Michigan. 

“They ran the thing,” Litz said of the World War II veterans who led the post around the time he joined. “Vietnam vets are the biggest part of this post right now.”

Tom Bustance, 76, of Troy, is the outgoing commander of the American Legion’s Stanley J. Fons Post 374 in Berkley. A veteran of the U.S. Air Force who served during Vietnam, it took him a while to seek out the fellowship he enjoyed in the military.

“Once you get involved here, you’ll find there’s more than just camaraderie,” Bustance said. “There’s the outreach we do, the things we do, fundraising for veterans and for the community.”

That’s how it was for William “Ike” Isenhour, 79, of Southfield, a Marine who served in Vietnam in 1969-70. He spent eight years on active duty and achieved the rank of major. Isenhour retired from the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1997 and joined the American Legion just four years ago. After years of driving past the building, he decided to walk in one day.  

“The camaraderie here is different because we’re all the sons or grandsons of veterans, so we all talk the same language,” Isenhour said. “I was involved with challenges we had and found satisfaction in contributing my part. It’s been rewarding and I’ve enjoyed it.”

Bustance said the Berkley American Legion post’s numbers were robust at about 1,500 after World War II. It had 302 post members in 2018 and has 274 in 2019. 

“We’re having trouble with membership,” Bustance said. “What keeps these places going is allowing the auxiliary and the SAL (Sons of the American Legion) to exist in your post.”

The American Legion Auxiliary is open to wives, mothers, sisters, daughters and granddaughters of Legion-eligible service members. The Sons of the American Legion is open to the sons and grandsons of eligible vets.

Adding the American Legion Auxiliary and the Sons of the American Legion brings the Berkley post’s 2019 total membership to 622.   

‘It’s stable, but it’s a struggle’

The irony sometimes lost, when dissecting what makes local veterans service organizations stay relevant, is how the very same Vietnam-era veterans who were shunned when they returned from war are now the ones making sure the posts don’t fall to the ground.

Mike Sand, a Vietnam vet and public information officer for Fraser VFW Post 6691, said he and others from his generation took the “John Wayne attitude” they were raised with and worked to cement their own legacies as military and community stewards.

“There’s so many good things we want to resurrect,” said Sand, 71, of Fraser, alluding to Fraser post members working regularly with schools, young Civil Air Patrol members and the Voice of Democracy program. When sixth graders visit the post and see the helicopter outside, they are “in awe.”

“Sadly, the membership is growing older, and we’re working very hard to enjoy some of the fruits of our efforts that we have,” he said. “Our post is making some headway in that direction, whereas a lot of other posts — for whatever reason, people are shying away.”

Steve Meakings, who served three Army tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a dimensional control engineer by day and the Fraser VFW quartermaster by night.

He keeps members up to date on finances, paperwork and other forms of compliance necessary to being a 501(c)(19) nonprofit veterans organization.

The quartermaster role was essentially thrust into his lap, and he ran with it. Numbers were dwindling when he joined about five years ago, risking the post being amalgamated into another post or being disbanded altogether.

Currently, Fraser VFW Post 6691 has about 317 members. Only a handful of active members served in either Iraq or Afghanistan, including Meakings.

“The funny thing is, I’m 55,” said Meakings, of Clinton Township. “I actually enlisted in the Army during the Gulf War and didn’t deploy, so I’m actually older than the Afghan-Iraq veterans who are in our post.

“We’re pushing for Afghanistan and Iraq veterans to join, but I think it’s the idea — their perception — of what the post is about based on their fathers and grandfathers and what they talk about, and what VFWs are actually about. It’s a misconception.”

When you look at the way things were then and how they are now, one word comes to mind: time.

“Because there’s no draft, they’re all volunteers,” Litz said. “They’re all going over there two, three, four times, and if they come back in one piece, they’ve got families and they’re going back to work and everything. It’s not the same. I don’t find them that eager to join a fraternal organization.”

F. Scott Metcalf, a U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Air Force veteran who is also a member of the Macomb County Ritual Team, is part of Shelby Township Disco VFW Post 4659. That post has about 450 members, an increase of about 200 members in a decade’s span.

When Metcalf retired from service in 1997, he walked into the VFW, threw his membership money on the bar top and walked out. He’s been a member ever since, but acknowledged he had the availability. The same can’t be said for vets from Desert Storm, for example, where day jobs, family life and other commitments are paramount.

“It’s stable, but it’s a struggle. It’s a struggle because there’s a transition going on,” said Metcalf, 69, of Washington Township. “Just as there was a transition between the World War II and Korean vets to the Vietnam vets, now there’s a transition from the Vietnam vets to the global war on terror/Iraq and Afghan vets. A lot of it has to do with where they are in their lifetimes.

“In my opinion, that’s what will happen again as the Desert Storm guys start to retire, and slowly into the Iraq and Afghanistan guys, who will retire as well. Our trouble is this gap in between. My guess is, we’ll drop probably 25% or 30% before it starts to climb back up again. And I don’t think there’s anything to do about it, honestly.”

There’s also an issue related to what members do and what the public thinks they do.

“The unfortunate perceived appearance of the VFW is that it’s a social club, it’s a drinking club,” Meakings said. “It’s not. It’s a veterans service organization. We’re here for veterans. We’re here to help them if they have financial trouble, medical trouble, family trouble, to get them help and point them in the right direction.”

Randell Shafer, an Army veteran and the current commander of the Bruce Post, said they make money through various annual fundraisers, like spaghetti dinners and Lenten fish fries that create more revenue than routine hall rentals.

Other activities have included “Family Feud” fundraisers, car shows and karaoke nights — the latter of which have also been introduced in Fraser to bring in adults ages 21-40.

Shafer said membership numbers are up for 2019, the first time in years, but (with) the challenge to bring in new members is significant. 

“It’s more convenient for them to stay home and not be out and about,” said Shafer, 55, of St. Clair Shores. “We try to get them in here, have the games on, but the younger people, it’s hard.”

The American Legion’s Fons Post in Berkley added a “kids corner” complete with gaming consoles, big screen TVs and other activities. The post’s fish fries are its biggest fundraising events.

“There’s still a need that vets can help service other vets in a way civilians just don’t quite understand, because you haven’t walked in their shoes,” Metcalf said. “Even the most well-meaning social worker hasn’t walked in their shoes.”

Meakings approaches vets regularly, in public, if he notices that they have served. He says “welcome home” and then inquires whether they want to be post members, if they aren’t already.

“People join the military for various personal reasons,” Meakings said. “Uncle Sam asks them to do a lot of things for very little pay and marginally acceptable food. Then we go and do it.

“We come back, and some people appreciate it and some people don’t, but some people need to talk about what happened to them — and they don’t want it on record. They don’t want to talk to a professional. They want to talk to somebody who understands and has been there. This is where you can do that.”


Find a post near you:

www.vfw.org/find-a-post

www.legion.org/members/locators/posts

www.dav.org/membership/local-chapters

amvets.org/nationwide-presence

vva.org/what-we-do/our-members/chapters