Q&A: Texas' Veterans of Foreign Wars discusses statewide struggles amid closures due to coronavirus pandemic

Dan West
Dan West, the Texas' Veterans of Foreign Wars State adjutant and quartermaster, said statewide closures of Texas VFW posts have prevented the veterans service organization from providing vital services to member veterans and their surrounding communities. (Courtesy Texas' Veterans of Foreign Wars)

Dan West, the Texas' Veterans of Foreign Wars State adjutant and quartermaster, said statewide closures of Texas VFW posts have prevented the veterans service organization from providing vital services to member veterans and their surrounding communities. (Courtesy Texas' Veterans of Foreign Wars)

Many Texas' Veterans of Foreign Wars posts across the state were forced to shutdown their facilities in late July after Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide executive order closing bars and other Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission license holders in response to rising COVID-19 cases amid the pandemic.

Many Texas VFW posts have since undergone financial strain as a result of the closures, according to a Sept. 23 press release by the organization. Dan West, Texas' VFW state adjutant and quartermaster, said during an Oct. 5 interview with Community Impact Newspaper this has prevented the veterans service organization from offering vital services to member veterans and their surrounding communities.

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected VFW posts across the state so far?

The government response to the coronavirus has been devastating to VFW posts across the state, simply because the governor and his executive order—closing down all the bars—unintentionally lumped almost every VFW post into that same category, as many of our VFW posts—we have 292 statewide—have a TABC license as part of their business model. It shut them down, and then the enforcement, where TABC and local law enforcement restricted and prohibited access to the actual building that had a TABC license. So, our members could not even go into their own building that they are an owner of to do their philanthropic work.

So, we couldn't do food banks. ... We couldn't let church groups meet there, couldn't let youth groups meet there. VFW posts are a multiuse facility; they're just not a place to go purchase alcohol at. They're an integral part of the community; they provide a lot of community service, a lot of community support. And part of how they keep the finances to keep the lights on, they'll have a [bar]—we call them canteens... [and] they require a license from the TABC. So, when the governor issued his executive order, it shut down just about every single VFW. Now we do have some VFW posts that don't have TABC licenses, and they were not affected, but we're talking 20 to 30 out of 292 that were not affected.

How many VFW posts have had to permanently shut down due to lack of funds?

I know of at least three that are shutting down. I know of a few more; they're trying to merge with another post, and I've got four or five that ... have been shut down. We still have bills to pay, and we haven't had the income from those bills, and a lot of our posts have depleted their savings. Day by day I get more and more calls from VFW posts that have said, 'Hey, I've gone six months now, I can't go any further.'

What role does a VFW post serve in its community, and what services does it provide to members?

A post will provide a very varied array of services. The primary thing they're there to do is to help war veterans. ... It's a safe place for your local heroes to go to where they can be together and where they have the shared experiences. ... A lot of [posts] will do charity dinners for individuals in the community; [someone's] house may have burned down, or somebody got diagnosed with cancer and they don't have the insurance. We do a lot of charity work where we're using our resources to help raise funds for somebody local in need. They will also provide a short-term stopgap financial support ... for transient veterans who may be needing a little handout, to get from one town to the next, or for whatever reason they have lost her job and got evicted and now they're sitting on the street and they've got nowhere else to turn. Veterans are a very proud lot, and they don't necessarily like asking for help, especially from nonveterans.

If a VFW post were to shut down permanently, what options do its members have?

If a VFW post closes down, then those members really don't have any other options as far as they could probably get together down at the [local] Dairy Queen or McDonald's once or twice a week and have coffee. ... If there is a location for another veteran service organization ... then they could probably go over there, but most of our members are already involved in those organizations as well.

I think the biggest loss here is not so much what the members do; it's a loss to the community. You no longer have a home for your local heroes. These are the men and women who earned their place in the front ranks of American citizenship by volunteering to serve and then who were deployed overseas to defend those rights and help liberate other people so they can enjoy the intrinsic values of American freedom. ... [For] veterans, it's going to be a loss—they're still going to be able to get together, but not without a safe place to meet. They could meet in a McDonald's with everybody coming in and staring at you; it's not the same as meeting in your own VFW post where it's somewhat restricted.

What solutions are currently available to VFW posts struggling with closures at this time? Why or why not might those options be feasible?

The TABC came out and gave us options on how to circumvent the governor's order. The first option they said was, ‘You guys can pay us $770 and we'll try to classify you as a restaurant,’ but then you still [have] got to go get your restaurant certified and inspected by the county or city or whatever rules they might have on top of that. Some posts [have] done that. ... They spent several thousand dollars to have their TABC license have a restaurant endorsement on there. ... [It’s] still not going to help the majority of the posts.

One of the other options, the TABC said you can rediagram the license portion of the building. Some posts can do that, they might have a separate room that's just their area for the TABC portion. ... A very small minority ... rediagrammed, [but] nobody else has taken up that option simply because it's not feasible because of the physical characteristics of their building.

The other option they gave us was to surrender our license. ... My own post, and probably many other posts ... have decided to surrender their TABC license and are going to adapt a business model that doesn't include the sale of alcohol for on-premises consumption. Hopefully that works for them.

The other option they gave us was to suspend our license. ... Several posts have said, ‘We're going to try the suspension,’ even though there's no guarantee they're not going to pay the [statutory] fee and that they’re even going to get their license back because it's almost like you have to reapply for it. ... Those are the options at the TABC said that we had. A small minority of our posts can probably handle each one, but not every post has that opportunity. ... We're a little upset that the governor doesn't believe veteran services are vital enough to allow us to open at the same rate of restaurants. All of my members, every single person in the Veterans of Foreign Wars has worn a gas mask at one point ... We understand the importance of personal protective equipment. We're willing to comply with that; we're willing to do everything possible to help slow, if not stop, the spread of the coronavirus. However, we can't do that if we go bankrupt.

What actions has the Texas' VFW taken to address this problem at the state level or by supporting its local VFW posts?

In the past, previous governors have always answered our phone calls. This administration does not answer our phone calls. ... So, we go to the media ... in the hopes that enough people become aware of what's happening here, that they call the governor and say, ...‘You need to rethink this, ... because your actions are hurting people, when I know they're intended to help, but you're hurting people.' ... Unfortunately, our own bylaws prohibit us from loaning money to our posts, and our bylaws were written by the members of the posts. I have a feeling that bylaw is going to be revised at some point in the future. The best thing that we can do to support, is we have allowed them to do some online fundraising. ... Lobbyists [are] not cheap, so we've been trying to get that bigger picture for them while trying to help them at the local level, but as you can imagine with 292 posts spread out across Texas, the needs of the post in Tomball is going to be completely different from the needs of the post in [other cities in] Texas.

What is the best way for communities to support their local VFW posts?

Right now, during the pandemic ... they need some cash donations, and they don't just need a one-time cash donation; they're going to need monthly cash donation–5 [to] 10 dollars. If 100 people were able to give up to $20 a month, that's going to help the VFW post survive because that will help them pay for their electricity bill. ... We sent guidance out; we've asked [posts] to empty out all of the coolers ... turn off all the unnecessary electricity, but you've still got the electric bill, [and] you've still got the water bill. A post roughly—some need more, some need less—can subsist off of about two grand a month. ... A one-time donation is greatly appreciated and will not be turned down. ... We are a 501(c)19 veteran service organization by the IRS, so donations to us are tax deductible.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.