DENVER- On the first Friday in November, though they’re still remodeling their new home in the Santa Fe Arts District, the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1 was as bustling as any gallery on the street.
“We like to say we’re the oldest post with the youngest membership,” says John Keene, Senior Vice Commander.
Keene was right. Just about everyone at Post 1 dropped this line in conversation while they talked about their innovative new VFW hangout as a way to continue their service at home and in community.
Originally founded in 1899 after a meeting in the basement of the state Capitol, VFW Post 1 has evolved from selling its last building on Bannock street while in financial disarray to buying this new, multifunctional space in a neighborhood better known for its painters and budtenders than its service veterans.
Unlike most VFWs, Post 1 opens its doors both to non-member veterans and to the community at large. Now the largest post in the state — and with the most women veterans to boot — Post 1 has become a national model at a time when VFWs throughout the country are shutting their doors due to lack of membership and funds.
“When you go to any other VFW, it’s a locked door. You show your membership card and then you get hit with the stench of despair,” said Post 1 Commander Mike Mitchel, who refers to himself as “Gulf-era” and is actively steering Post 1 away from the VFW stereotype of a members-only bar.
“This new building is our chance to engage with the community,” he said. “When you walk in you don’t know you’re in a VFW.”
In addition to the street-front gallery space showcasing art by veterans across the region, the post also has art studios and plays host to yoga nights, poetry slams and film screenings.
As the Veterans Administration has been rocked by controversy about treatment delays and failure to get veterans with PTSD the support they need, Mitchel says Post 1 is looking to be proactive about filling the gaps.
“We’re the hub of the wagon wheel. If we can’t help you in that hub, we refer you to the right spot — whether it’s homeless issues or finding a job,” he said. By way of example, he mentioned a partnership with Broomfield-based communications company Level Three that has resulted in 70 veterans being hired in two months.
Inside the hub, both Mitchel and Keene are looking to empower young veterans and care for older ones.
Chris Williams, who returned from active duty in 2006, has pioneered a current conflict veterans peer-to-peer program at the post.
“My first couple of years back I was having a lot of trouble with isolation. It could take me a couple hours just to work up enough nerve to leave the house,” Williams said. “The VA has a lot of support groups … but a lot of us don’t want to sit in a circle talking about stuff we don’t want to talk about.”
Williams’s peer-to-peer group is intended to connect post-9/11 veterans to each other as friends and allies so they can respond nimbly at times of crisis. Sometimes that means working with the Post to help out a transient vet with bus fare and food. Sometimes it means answering the phone late and being there for support.
“I get phone calls in the middle of the night, someone saying ‘Hey, I’m thinking this, is this normal?’ I say, ‘It’s perfectly normal. Stop drinking. Where are you, so I can get to you?’”
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In the same vein, the post also has designated much of its upstairs studio space to its Art of War Project, the brainchild of 29-year-old Curt Bean who did two tours in Iraq and returned with PTSD.
Now an art student at the University of Colorado, Denver, Bean is a sleeve-tattooed tour de force teaching art therapy at the VA hospital’s PTSD program he once attended and hosting monthly film screenings and art classes at the Post.
“We don’t force anyone to talk about their experiences. If that comes out, great. But the whole point of the Art of War program is not to be a clinical environment in anyway,” Bean said. “It’s social, a place for veterans to interact with their peers in a more natural way.”
Creating an inclusive space for art has also lured older members to the Post.
John Stadler began drawing at age 23, three years after returning from Vietnam. Some three decades later, he joined the post just in time to show his meticulous drawings during this past “First Friday” festivities.
“I taught myself. I picked up books of Rembrandt and Da Vinci and just copied their work until I could do it.” Stadler spoke very softly and drew with a pencil in each hand, shading the clouds over Noah’s Ark with many tiny lines.
Across the gallery, Pete Aragon — who spent twenty years in the military, largely as a Green Beret — cracked jokes with Williams and a handful of other young veterans. Aragon said he transferred to Post 1 from another VFW because of the community focus. The post’s new location is also just a few blocks from where Aragon grew up.
“Now we’ve got a home where we can meet, where we can talk,” he said. “It’s our place, it’s our own.”
“This is kind of a safe space,” Keene agreed. “Whether it’s art, yoga, peer-to-peer, movie night, or watching the Bronco’s game, whatever we’re doing we say, ‘This is our house, you’re all welcome’.”
[John Keene explains the history of VFW Post 1]