Former U.S. servicemen and servicewomen who fought to ensure the freedoms Americans enjoy today are now fighting in towns across the country to keep veteran organizations relevant in today’s day and age.
In Urbana, two of the country’s most recognized veterans groups – Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans – have seen membership jump by 10.4 percent since May thanks to ongoing renovations at 220 E. Court St., the Joint Headquarters of DAV Chapter 31 and VFW Spriggs-Wing Post 5451.
Back in December 2012, the two organizations took a $165,000 leap of faith and joined forces to purchase the former Daily Citizen building, nearly four times the size of the organizations’ former facility at 400 N. Main St., which sold in September for $50,000.
Almost four years into the project and the two organizations have breathed new life into their new home, transforming it into a facility that provides not only veterans with a place to seek services and hang out with fellow comrades, but also a place for the community to gather, whether it be for a friendly game of Bingo or to celebrate a special occasion.
Bill Gibson, building manager and an auxiliary member of the VFW, said, while the VFW is in charge of all activities that take place withing the facility, the building itself is owned by the DAV and features the following: four offices (VFW, DAV, Champaign County Veterans Service Office and the building manager’s office), a conference room, BrownRidge Hall (rental venue), and the newest addition – a canteen.
New hangout a hit
Based on the spike in membership alone since opening earlier this year, the DAV/VFW Canteen appears to be the social gathering place many veterans and supporters of the DAV and VFW were looking for.
VFW Post 5451 Quartermaster Carl Angles said since the canteen opened in May, membership has increased by 65 individuals (10 VFW members and 55 social members), bring the total membership of the DAV/VFW joint headquarters to 691.
As for the breakdown of the nearly 700 members, Angles said, 189 are VFW members, 175 belong to the DAV, 147 are considered social members, 101 make up the VFW ladies auxiliary, 72 belong to the VFW men’s auxiliary, and seven are part of the DAV auxiliary.
The canteen, which is open Monday through Thursday from 3 to 10 p.m., Friday from 1 to 10 p.m., Saturday from noon to 10 p.m., and Sunday from 1 to 10 p.m., offers patrons alcoholic beverages, soft drinks, popcorn, potato chips…etc.
Contrary to popular belief, the canteen does serve non-servicemen.
“You don’t have to be a veteran,” Gibson said. “You can join as a social member.”
In order to be considered for inclusion in the DAV/VFW joint headquarters as a social member, an individual must be of “good standing in the community” and must submit an application which is reviewed and voted on by joint officers of both veterans groups, Gibson said.
Veterans interested in joining either the VFW or DAV must also submit an application, which must be approved by officers in that particular organization since the VFW and DAV each have their own qualifications for membership, Gibson said.
“For example, to be a VFW member, there is certain criteria that has to be met,” he said. “It’s just not simply being a member of the military. You have to have been a veteran of a foreign war to be a VFW member.”
Gibson added applications may be picked up at the joint headquarters, and each membership includes a yearly membership fee.
Along with getting the canteen up and running this year, the DAV/VFW joint headquarters has already begun working toward additional improvements and equipment for the building.
“We are using the funds we received from the sale of other building to put in a full-service kitchen and install a walk-in cooler,” said Gibson, who added the goal is to have the walk-in cooler installed by the end of November and the kitchen up and running by Christmas.
The full-service kitchen and walk-in cooler will serve the canteen and won’t be available to those who rent BrownRidge Hall, he added.
While the kitchen will be used for DAV/VFW-related events, there is the chance the canteen could one day in the future beginning selling meals.
“It’s a decision we haven’t made yet,” Gibson said. “If and when we decide we want to go further with our kitchen, we would do the proper things to get approval through the health department.”
Along with building upgrades, the DAV/VFW is halfway through a project involving the installation of an outside patio located off the west side of the facility.
“We have half of it poured with concrete thanks to the gracious donation of Walter & Stowe Funeral Home, and we are hoping to have it complete by next spring,” Gibson said.
Joshua Keeran may be reached at 937-652-1331 (ext. 1774) or on Twitter @UDCKeeran.