DUNEDIN — Claude Gregoire joined the Army at 17 and by 18, he was fighting in Vietnam. When he returned in 1972, he didn't join the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
"Years ago, we just thought it was a club about drinking and war stories," he said.
The Spring Hill resident didn't drink and he had heard Vietnam vets were less than welcome at some posts. But in 2000, he took another look at the VFW.
Now Gregoire, 57, is VFW District 21 commander. With 11 posts in Hernando, Pasco and Pinellas counties, members support veterans, their families and their communities. And they hope to continue that tradition.
But in Pinellas at least, that may be a struggle.
Four years ago, the Tarpon Springs post folded into the Palm Harbor post. Recently, the Palm Harbor post in turn merged with Dunedin. Members of the new Dunedin Palm Harbor Post 2550 are hoping to attract veterans from recent wars, but for the most part, younger veterans have not flocked to the VFW.
"We're a dying ember," Gregoire said. "We need our younger veterans to keep this place going.
"There's got to be somebody here," he said, "to be here for them when they come home."
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Dutch Grubbs, 62, a Vietnam veteran and Navy chief, was in the service for 30 years. He was recently elected commander of Dunedin Palm Harbor Post 2550.
"It's working out fine," he said last week, taking a break from painting.
Grubbs was in the Tarpon Springs post before it folded into the Palm Harbor post. And he was in the Palm Harbor post when it merged with the Dunedin post, which was chartered in 1945. The merged post has 401 members, 141 from Dunedin and 260 from Palm Harbor.
Dunedin's former commander, Cecil Short of Clearwater, is in rehabilitation after a recent stroke. Grubbs said the average age of the Dunedin members was about 84 and in Palm Harbor, the younger membership had outgrown their small building.
"It was the best thing to keep both posts going," he said, but he has mixed emotions. "It was a great place, nestled back in the woods. Everyone there was family. There wasn't one of them you couldn't call in the middle of the night if you needed help."
The Palm Harbor members brought their bar top with them.
"This piece here, this is our history from Palm Harbor," Grubbs said, rubbing the sawdust off the dark surface covered with inlaid VFW pins.
Rick Komar, 60, a Vietnam vet from the Palm Harbor post, was up on a ladder in the canteen, pulling wires for upgraded speakers and stereo controllers. He's "ecstatic" about the merger, said Dunedin has a good history with veterans and a new Purple Heart Park. When the renovations are completed in about two weeks, the post will be open for members on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. And the post will be ready for returning vets.
But most veterans join VFW in their late 30s to 50s, Grubbs said, when they miss the camaraderie.
"A lot of people have no idea what the VFW does," he said.
VFW is self-supporting and members nationwide fund cancer aid and research, a home for children of deployed service members and a retirement home for veterans. In Palm Harbor, Grubbs said, they made baskets for needy families at Thanksgiving, sometimes at Christmas, and held fundraisers.
A children's writing competition is under way at the combined post and the two ladies auxiliaries have merged and elected June Marshall as their new president.
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All are welcome at the VFW bingo in Dunedin on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
The players started trickling in at 9:30 a.m. one recent day for bingo at noon. They were playing cards, having egg salad sandwiches ($1.25), maybe with a big chunk of coconut cake ($1).
"We like the food," said Linda Soley of Clearwater, there with her husband, Don, 75.
Some VFW members were meeting their new commander for the first time.
"What, are you people taking over here?" said John Corsano, 89, from the Dunedin post.
"We already took over," Grubbs said.
"I don't come to too many meetings," said Corsano, who has a pacemaker and a defibrillator. "At night, I can't drive."
The new commander said he'd bring that up, organize some carpools.
At 79, Stephen Beney was one of the youngest members in the former Dunedin post. He was in the Army in the Korean War, left as a private first class. "I got in trouble over there," he said with a wistful smile. Beney is hopeful about the new commander. "He's going to get this post really going," he said.
Pete Murphy of Dunedin, 84, was in the Army in World War II. In the former Dunedin post, he was senior vice commander. He lit up when he said the new post members are talking about dinners and dances. Then it was time for Murphy to call out numbers.
"Okay, good afternoon, everyone," he said. "We're ready to start our bingo here."
The room grew quiet and he called 30 numbers without a winner.
"G-58," he said then.
Marge Thrasher of Clearwater raised her arm high, but Murphy kept calling.
"Bingo!" Thrasher finally said, and claimed her $25.
Theresa Blackwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.