For decades, Veterans of Foreign Wars posts have played vital roles in small towns throughout America. But in recent years, as World War II veterans have passed away, membership in VFWs has fallen drastically, and many posts have closed. Now, though, some are facing a possible renaissance, thanks to female soldiers returning from overseas.
The main room of the VFW post in Rosemount, Minn., is half-bar and half-bingo hall, with long card tables. In a corner, two men on a stage rotate a round cage of balls and call out bingo numbers.
Minnesota National Guard Maj. Kristin Auge is moving between tables wearing a green apron, her pockets stuffed with bingo cards that she sells to players, most of whom are regulars. Wednesday bingo nights are open to the public and help fund the VFW's operations.
Auge lives only a few miles away, but had never been to this VFW until last spring. When she told one of the members she wanted to join, he told her she had to have been in the service. Auge told him she is. Then he said she had to have been deployed. She had just gotten back from Iraq.
"And he goes, 'Oh, OK. Well, I'll take your paperwork,' " she says.
The older members here welcomed Auge, so she cajoled some of her reluctant female vet friends into joining. VFW officials say they're seeing an influx of women like Auge and her friends joining the group after they return from overseas deployments.
Auge says she was looking for a place to spend time with the women who were part of her support system during deployments. She and her friend, veteran Diane Sandberg, successfully campaigned for leadership positions at this post. Sandberg says they feared the post could close, and jokes that, as women, they were better equipped to address the problem.
"We definitely have pluses that the men don't have. We hear everything. It's not selective hearing. We can balance and juggle where they're just, you know, more single-minded," she says. "And I know I'm being funny, but we want to make sure this is there for the future, and we want to do our part, now that we can, to make sure that it stays sacred."
Sandberg says all vets need a place where they can spend time with others who understand their experiences.
"Wars are not going to stop, military service is not going to stop, and so future soldiers, men and women, need a place to go, and they need a place to decompress," she says.
But sometimes the generations — and the genders — clash, over things like the decor.
"The club is kinda dark and dreary, and we want to brighten up the place," says veteran Linda Ausen. "Some of these guys are still thinking, 'Oh no, it's fine. We like the dark wood paneling."
Beyond those disagreements, there's some awkwardness around political correctness. Rosemount post Cmdr. Marvin Jansma says male members are watching themselves, but they still make mistakes.
"You can only go so far. And you just have to behave yourself," he says. "I know I said something last week at Linda, and I said it a certain way, and it was like, 'Oh, I should not have said that.' "
But Jansma says he's grateful for new members and officers. He concedes that as his generation ages, it's harder to maintain the post.
"When it comes to the young ladies that we've got here, we're thankful, and there's challenges, but we have opportunities," he says.
Jansma is now more hopeful that this VFW post will survive — and even thrive — after his generation is gone.