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.
Not long ago, Post 1 faced a grim future. Membership in the post, which was founded in 1899 by Spanish-American War veterans, was shrinking. The aging group could no longer pay rent on its bar. In 2002, it became homeless, and the remaining members held meetings where they could. The national VFW threatened to revoke its charter.
“I joined the VFW for the $1.25 Jack and Cokes, but I never wore the funny hat or went to meetings,” said Michael Mitchel, a veteran of the Persian Gulf war of 1991 who is the post commander. “Then we lost the building and almost lost the charter, and I finally got involved. Someone had to do something to save it.”
He and another Persian Gulf war veteran, Izzy Abbass, began recruiting student veterans in Denver. They preached a message that the VFW was about coming together to help others, and in the process finding the sense of purpose and camaraderie many veterans feel they lose after leaving the military.
In a way, it was a return to the original mission of the group, which in the 1920s was a young upstart that lobbied hard to get the government to stop spending lavishly on war memorials, and instead give better care for the thousands of troops with psychological injuries stemming from World War I. Lobbying by the VFW, the American Legion and other groups also helped create veterans’ health care and education benefits that millions of veterans now rely on.
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.
The focus on service has attracted unlikely members.
“I never thought I would join,” said Marla Keown, 34, a professional photographer who wore a long, flowing skirt and green highlights in her hair during a recent interview. “I went to my hometown VFW when I got home from Iraq. All the old guys in there looked at me like I was someone’s daughter. But Post 1 is different.”
The post commander drew her in by asking her to teach a photography class once a week. The class has attracted other young women. They recently started collaborating with a nearby gallery to teach art to children.
“That never would have happened if we were sitting in a bar,” she said.
The young membership has pushed Post 1 in other new directions. It has reached out to gay veterans, who traditionally have not been embraced by the VFW. A doctor recently came to the post to give a lecture on what is known about treating post-traumatic stress disorder with medical marijuana.
At the same time, Post 1 has tried not to alienate older generations. It sponsors home health care for elderly members, and young veterans drive older ones to meetings.
At a recent monthly meeting, Vietnam veterans in silver ponytails hugged men half their age. A woman with a tattoo on her biceps stood up next to a man with hearing aids and was welcomed to her first meeting with a round of applause. A service dog snoozed in the aisle.
A 94-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor named Raymond Starkey read the opening prayer.
He has been a member of Post 1 since the 1950s, and thought he might outlive it until the new generation brought new life. Now traveling with a walker and an oxygen tank, he said he was proud to see the younger veterans in the room with him.
Asked about all the recent changes, he smiled and said: “Life is changes. It’s good for you.”