After nearly 70 years of camaraderie and celebration of military service, the Forest Park charter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States has officially closed.
Longtime Forest Park resident and Forest Park VFW Commander Neil Scarpelli said the VFW simply closed due to a lack of membership and community interest.
“The VFW receives a charter from the national organization, and when you can no longer support the post that you belong to, you have to either turn in the charter or get new members,” Scarpelli said. “Consequently, members weren’t coming to the meetings and there was no sense in continuing it.”
The VFW is a federally chartered, nonprofit corporation that was formed in 1899 by Spanish-American War veterans as an organization to foster friendship between military veterans and advocate for veterans’ rights in the United States. Since its inception, the VFW has been credited with assisting in the establishment of the Veterans Administration, creating the GI bill, funding war memorials and providing monetary assistance to wounded veterans.
According to Scarpelli, the Forest Park VFW was first chartered after World War II and originally held its meetings at a VFW hall that was located on Desplaines Avenue and Madison Street. The Forest Park charter remained in that location until they could no longer financially support having their own building. Eventually, the charter moved in with the Forest Park American Legion, located at 500 Circle Ave., where they have met for over 20 years.
Despite the Forest Park VFW charter closing, the village’s American Legion will remain open and continue serving the area. The American Legion, which is a nonprofit group incorporated by Congress in 1919, is an organization that advocates patriotism, supports veterans, and assists in sponsoring community programming. Unlike the VFW, membership in the American Legion is open to both veterans and non-military civilians.
Scarpelli said that at the time the charter ended, the VFW had around 75 active and non-active members. Any members who are still active have the opportunity to belong to a holding post, or a VFW charter in a neighboring community.
The closing of the Forest Park VFW is just another example of the struggle of VFWs across the country. For decades, most VFWs in the U.S. saw the majority of their membership coming from World War II veterans. With the aging veterans passing away at rapid rates and younger veterans not joining the VFW as eagerly as veterans of yesterday, VFWs nationwide are fighting to keep centers open and charters filled. VFW membership peaked in the early 1990s with 2.5 million members, and now membership nationwide is down to around 1.3 million. Essentially, the VFW is struggling to remain a relevant organization among veterans of younger generations.
While the Forest Park VFW will no longer exist, the Forest Park Historical Society remains dedicated to preserving the history of Forest Park veterans. Executive Director Diane Hansen Grah said that while the American Legion has some records on the VFW, her group hopes to further preserve VFW documents.
“We have a couple of files in our archives, one on the VFW and one on the American Legion,” Grah said. “What I’m trying to negotiate now is to preserve those records that Neil has, like photos.”