On a sunny Tuesday, the door to Andrew Jackson American Legion Post 99's canteen is wide open as John and Linda Swald finish up maintenance chores.
The couple stop by often during the week to help out with whatever needs to be done. Rarely is there not a need at the 56-year-old hall on Fort Dade Avenue in downtown Brooksville.
In addition to woes ranging from plumbing problems to constant damage by vandals, the building is showing its age. A new roof and other major repairs have remained on hold for some time. Fundraisers have helped with some of the money, but they haven't done much to address all of the post's needs.
"It's been a struggle for us the last couple of years," said Harry Washington, commander of Hernando County's oldest active veterans organization. "Every month we have to make choices that we didn't used to have to do. And when you don't have the money, there's a lot of things that don't get done that need to get done."
As the nation prepares to mark Veterans Day on Monday, the 81-year-old organization isn't alone in its plight. Other long-established veterans groups in Hernando County are facing similar financial pressures, including Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10209 in Spring Hill and Disabled American Veterans Cada Haddon Post 67, west of Brooksville. Leaders of both of those organizations say they have contemplated selling their headquarters in an effort to try to stay afloat.
Reasons for the nonprofit organizations' slow demise vary. But many veterans, including Jim O'Brien, former post adjutant for VFW Post 10209, who heads a committee looking for ways to pull the organization from its financial turmoil, conclude that the cause is largely a matter of math — the numbers simply don't add up: Membership is nowhere near what it was when the organizations were flush with World War II and Korean War veterans.
"Our post was built mostly by those guys," O'Brien said. "But they're pretty much gone now. And when you don't have those numbers any longer, you don't get the same amount of revenue from events and activities. So, you end up having to find ways to make ends meet."
The heyday for veterans organizations such as the American Legion and VFW is, for the most part, long gone. Fueled largely by the 16 million returning armed forces from WWII, their strength was in their numbers. During their best years, hometown chapters were popular social and civic destinations, and they were well-supported in their communities. The organizations gained recognition for supporting youth sports leagues, Scout troops and youth education, and raised millions for civic and charitable causes.
Ed Baker, a longtime member of American Legion Post 99, said the Brooksville chapter once boasted more than 700 members and supported civic activities, including scholarships through the Boys State and Girls State programs. However, those scholarships were dropped two years ago when the chapter could no longer afford to fund them.
"We have less than a third of the members we had a dozen years ago," Baker said. "And unless we and other groups find a way to attract more new blood, we could be seeing even tougher times ahead."
However, not everyone believes the end is near for the veterans groups. Rich Budzynski, commander of VFW Post 9236 in Hernando Beach and a Vietnam War veteran, said he has seen an uptick in interest by other veterans of his era. His post has 313 lifetime members and is bolstered by active men's and women's auxiliary groups that are involved in many of the club's functions, such as the annual Hernando County Veterans Benefit Resource Fair and club sponsorship of the ROTC program at Central High School.
"I think we've learned to put our resources to work more wisely," Budzynski said. "And we've done pretty well in avoiding some of the financial troubles that others have had."
Although the organization has experienced its own share of slow times, Budzynski said Post 9236 leaders simply decided to do away with events and activities that required more people and financial support than the club could muster. The canteen, which at one time served daily meals, is now open only at select times. And the organization has taken steps to build its membership ranks by offering more events aimed at younger veterans, he said.
"I think veterans organizations are going to have to start thinking differently if they want to someday attract the Afghanistan and Iraq war guys," Budzynski said. "They are the ones who are going to benefit from what we do, and they'll be the ones who will be setting the standard for the veterans who will follow them someday."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.