DENVER — At a weekly meeting in the country’s oldest Veterans of Foreign Wars post, a Marine began by asking members to close their eyes and inhale.
“Bring your hands to your heart center,” he said. “Notice all the air that is moving around you.”
It was Tuesday at VFW Post 1: yoga night. Wednesday is meditation. Friday is photography class — unless it is open gallery night, when hundreds of civilians peruse veteran artwork while a DJ spins records. The post hosts a monthly film series. And meetings often have as many backward ball caps as VFW hats.
Do not come expecting a bar. There is none.
“We didn’t want a dark dive bar,” said the senior vice commander of the post, Brittany Bartges, a 29-year-old veteran of the Iraq war. “We wanted a healing place where veterans could come together and bring their families.”
By abandoning the traditional model of a dim, members-only tavern in favor of a bright gallery space, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in Denver have transformed the VFW’s oldest post into one of its youngest.
Once a dying post like many others, Post 1 began recruiting aggressively among veterans at nearby colleges and threw open the doors, welcoming other veterans’ groups to use the building.
It is now a hub for volunteering, exercise, and art, where the focus is on camaraderie and community service. And the membership is thriving. Before, some meetings drew only five people. Now, more than 40 regularly attend.
Post members say they hope to create a model for attracting young veterans that could be adopted across the country. And just in time for the 116-year-old VFW.
The nationwide network has lost more than 500,000 members in the last decade, tracing the declining number of veterans from World War II and Korea.
More than 1,000 posts have closed. The average age of its 1.3 million members is now 68.
Young veterans have shown little interest in joining. Only about 15 percent of eligible Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are members.
The percentage is even smaller among women, who make up a growing proportion of war veterans but tend to see traditional veterans’ groups as out of touch with their needs. (It was only last year that the VFW changed references in its congressional charter from “men” to “veterans,” and the incentive for recruiting members is still a tie clip.)
The VFW is not the only traditional veterans’ group that is struggling to connect with the next generation. Membership in the American Legion, which was founded in 1919 and is open to all veterans (not just those who fought in foreign wars), has declined by more than a million people since its peak in the 1990s as older veterans have died and fewer young veterans have joined.
At the same time, hundreds of new groups have sprung up, often with narrow missions that resonate with younger veterans, such as Team Red, White and Blue, which encourages veterans to exercise together, and Team Rubicon, which coordinates disaster response teams of veterans.
The older groups retain political clout and an infrastructure of thousands of posts that few veterans’ groups can match. But their leaders acknowledge that they face an image problem with the next generation.
“People think it’s just a bar,” said the VFW’s senior vice commander in chief, Brian Duffy, who will lead the national organization next year. “They don’t want to join.’’
“We have to be more innovative to reach the millennials. Post 1 is doing that,” Duffy said.
To keep young members, Post 1 dropped what it saw as outdated orthodoxy, cutting the number of official prayers at meetings to two from seven, and easing rules on the wearing of the VFW’s distinctive hats.
It dropped a rule modeled on secret fraternal organizations that barred nonmembers from attending, adopted a “try before you buy” open-door policy and moved meetings to Thursday nights, when more young veterans could attend. It also offered free child care.
Some older members at other posts have blasted the changes. But Post 1 has continued to encourage other posts to follow its lead, and at least a handful of others have, though none have gone quite as far.
“You have to evolve or die,” said Mitchel, 47. “It used to be all World War II guys. Now I’m the old guy in the room.”
A year ago, with membership growing, Post 1 bought a new home: a run-down but spacious two-story gallery spot in Denver’s hip Santa Fe Drive arts district, surrounded by other galleries, architect studios, and a “paleo bistro.”
Members hang their art and invite the public to mingle during the monthly art walk.
“We’ve become the opposite of a dark bar,” said Curt Bean, 30, a former cavalry scout with tattoos covering both arms who holds weekly painting classes at the post. “We’ve become a bridge to the community.” He never thought he would join the VFW, he said, but after two hard combat tours in Iraq, Post 1 helped him reconnect with other veterans and society.