Neil Scarpeilli (File photo)

Neil Scarpelli served in the U.S. Navy in World War II and is presently the commander of the American Legion/VFW Post 7181. He can tell stories about his experiences as a sailor, but he also has good memories of the way the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) used to be.

“The membership was loaded,” he recalled. “It was almost overwhelming. They had Christmas parties, steak nights, picnics and social meetings. They would have bingo for the vets at Hines VA Hospital with cash prizes. They marched in the parades, sold poppies in May to raise money for charity and decorated the graves of veterans on Memorial Day and Veterans Day.”

Times have changed. At their regular meeting on the first Monday of the month, an average of four to six vets show up at the VFW Hall at 500 Circle Ave. in Forest Park. They don’t have enough manpower to place American flags on the graves of Veterans on Memorial Day nor are they in good enough shape to march in the parades.

So why would Eric Van Ness, age 33, and Kevin Connelly who is 47 want to become members of what is perceived by many as a group of old guys reminiscing about the past?

Connelly, who is a Forest Park resident and is currently an active duty operations officer in the Marine Corps, said, “I have always enjoyed spending time with people of older generations. These people somehow managed to survive before the TV, internet and cell phones. Moreover, they fought during WWII, Korea, and Vietnam and there is a tremendous amount to learn from them. For example, WWII did not have helicopters to aid in their battles, yet these remarkable veterans used what innovations they had at the time and won the war. I often wondered how we could employ these battle-tested individuals with the wealth of knowledge they possess. Imagine what they could teach today’s soldier.”

Van Ness, who served in the Army in Kosovo as a Civil Affairs Team Sergeant in 2003, said, “I’m trying to get involved and give back a little bit. I joined the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce for the same reason. I’m invested in the community now. We bought a house here. I like knowing what’s going on, and being part of that VFW keeps that connection.”

When asked why younger veterans are not joining his organization, Scarpelli replied, “Younger vets are bogged down trying to make a living, so they don’t join other causes. Also, in WWII there was a draft and ‘entire cities’ would be deployed together and come home together.”

Today, only one percent of those who are eligible to serve in the all-volunteer armed services actually do, and are scattered all over the country, so there is not a critical mass of neighbors who had the same experience. Van Ness added that all the WWI vets have died, the people who served in WWII and Korea are getting older and the Vietnam veterans “aren’t connected.”

Matt Brown, another Forest Park resident, served in Korea for a year and for seven months overseeing demining in Bosnia. He left the service with the rank of captain. Although he believes that the VFW is “an outstanding organization that fulfills a vital role in the lives of veterans returning from war and combat operations,” he has never joined the VFW.

“I served in the Army from May 1996-May 2000,” he said. “During this time I was never involved in a hostile action. I personally feel that I would not have the same shared experiences that form the foundation of the VFW. I hold the men and women who serve during conflicts in the highest esteem. I have never had to find out how I would react under fire, or what kind of soldier and leader I would become under those circumstances.”

 Neither Connelly nor Van Ness came under fire during their deployments either, but they are still high on the VFW’s potential for serving the needs of younger veterans. For one thing, they point out that the organization can function as a support group. Van Ness said that the transition from being deployed overseas to coming back to civilian life can be very stressful. 

“When you are deployed,” he explained, “you are very, very important. You are a key part of the machine. Then you come back here and you’re a 22 year old working at a Home Depot. You’re not important anymore and can lack a sense of purpose. There are a lot of problems military folks have when they come back which could probably be solved by having some sort of outlet, a group of like-minded people. It’s not a therapy group, but a group in which you can talk about stuff and work things out.”

Van Ness said he would encourage young veterans to join the VFW, because it’s a chance to be part of something bigger than yourself and to give back to the community. He said that he as a younger member wants to “move the ball forward” and help the organization remain relevant and vital. 

Connelly added, “Today’s VFW has different levels of involvement which continue to provide job skills training and hiring fairs. It awards over $3 million in college scholarships, and members contribute more than 8.6 million hours of volunteerism in communities each year. The VFW maintains a volunteer relationship with Hines VA Hospital and an adopt-a-soldier program.”

Scarpelli said that his members still hold an annual pancake breakfast, run a monthly raffle, maintain the facility at the corner of Circle and Adams, and donate money to charities. He encourages younger veterans to join the VFW to “continue the patriotic spirit of America, support the country and Patriotic beliefs and to pay homage to the veterans that didn’t make it home.”

To become a member of the VFW a veteran must have served overseas during a conflict. Post 7181 meets on the first Monday of every month at 7:30 p.m. Ring the doorbell as the doors are typically locked.