As VFW Membership Drops VFW Post 6933 in Darien Struggles to Stay Afloat

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Scott VanDeheyden has done everything he could think of to keep VFW Post 6933 afloat.

But the Civil War-era building that has been home to the post for 78 years is slipping under. 

“We are in very dire shape,” said VanDerheyden, a Marine lance corporal who served during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. “We’re probably 30 days away from having to close our doors.”

VFW members own the building on Noroton Avenue in Darien, said VanDerheyden, a Stamford resident. Post 6933 has 120 members from Darien and surrounding towns, he said, but only six to eight show up for meetings.

“I’ve been trying to make sure the bills get paid, and that some capital repairs get done in a building that’s from the mid-1800s,” said VanDerheyden, 54. “I want to level-set us as best I can and pass it off, but I don’t know who will do it. We have no new members coming in who want to get involved.”

Veterans of Foreign Wars posts nationwide face similar situations. 

The news website Military.com reports that the VFW had a record 2.1 million members nationally in 1992. By 2022, membership was half that.

VFW halls have been safe havens for military members returning home from battle, and centers of community service, for 125 years. 

The organization was formed in 1899 by veterans who banded together to help each other recover from wounds and find work when the government was doing little to assist them. Once posts were established, veterans extended the help to their fellow citizens by supporting needy families, sponsoring scholarships and youth sports, hosting civic events, and offering their halls as inexpensive venues for gatherings.

But since America’s military went all-volunteer, less than 1 percent of the population serves, and the pool of eligible VFW members has shrunk.

Other factors play in.

‘The same heartbeat’

Membership began fading in the 1970s, when Vietnam veterans failed to join the VFW in the same numbers as World War II veterans. But the steepest decline was yet to come – veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq joined in even smaller numbers.

He understands why, VanDerheyden said of his peers. 

“When I got out of the Marine Corps, I didn’t want to have anything to do with the VFW. I wanted to reconnect with my guys, not necessarily a World War II veteran or a Vietnam veteran,” VanDerheyden said.

“It was a really challenging time. I was a train wreck for two years,” he said. “In the military, guys are so close they have the same heartbeat. There’s such camaraderie, such discipline. You don’t care what color the other guy is, or where he came from. When I left the base for the last time, I cried all the way home because I knew it was all gone, and I was going to a place that didn’t have anything like it.”

Then he met Fran Sparrow, daughter of Vietnam veteran Jimmy Sparrow of Stamford, a leader of a grassroots movement to get the federal government to acknowledge the devastating illnesses brought on by exposure to the jungle exfoliant Agent Orange, and to hold the chemical companies accountable.

“The biggest reason I was able to get back into the world was my relationship with Fran. She had gone through stuff with her father. She understood. She saved my life,” VanDerheyden said. “Her father was a member of the VFW who was talking to veterans, trying to get them to join.”

Unexpected bonds

He started tending bar at Post 6933, VanDerheyden said.

“The camaraderie among the Vietnam veterans was really something. And the stories from the World War II guys were crazy. Some of them took part in the invasion of Normandy or they served with General Patton,” he said. “I became immersed in it. I formed bonds with them. It was therapeutic.”

VFW posts can be life-saving, said Jimmy Sparrow, now VanDerheyden’s father-in-law and a fellow Marine. Sparrow was a corporal and rifleman in Vietnam.

Like VanDerheyden, Sparrow struggled after returning from the highly disputed Vietnam war. And, like VanDerheyden, VFW posts weren’t for him, Sparrow said.

But given the hard experience returning home, VFW Post 10013, which was on Cove Road in Stamford in the 1970s, was worth a shot, Sparrow said.

“I went there to have a drink one day. Then I just started hanging around,” he said. “There were no Vietnam guys. There were World War II guys and a few from the Korean war, but the post had no business to speak of, and they weren’t doing the things VFW posts are supposed to do, like advocate for veterans.”

Still, he felt he belonged, Sparrow said.

“There was no place for us, so the post meant everything,” he said. “You could talk about your experiences in Vietnam. Back then, if you went to Pellicci’s or the Brass Rail or The Colony to have a drink with a buddy and they heard you talking, somebody would tell you, ‘Shut up. We don’t want to hear that.’ But at the VFW, talking was encouraged, and it helped.”

He began encouraging his Vietnam buddies to meet at Post 10013. Soon they were running it. 

Deathbed call

One day the post got a call from Paul Reutershan, who’d been a door gunner on helicopters that sprayed Agent Orange in Vietnam. Reutershan said he was calling from his bed in a hospital, where he was dying from a cancer he believed he got from flying through clouds of the chemical.

The Veterans Administration wouldn’t listen to him, Reutershan told Sparrow. He died soon after that, and Sparrow and other veterans from the post took on his fight. 

It went nationwide and lasted more than five years. In 1984, the veterans settled with some of the country’s biggest chemical companies for what would amount to $250 million, the largest settlement of a class-action wrongful injury suit of the time.

Post 10013, however, didn’t survive. 

“People kept calling the police on us. They thought that, because we went to Vietnam, we were dope fiends running a drug ring. It wasn’t true, but one day the cops raided us. They came in with flak jackets on, like they were going to war,” Sparrow said. “They didn’t find drugs, but after that we shut down, and most of us transferred to the post in Darien.”

Now that post is in danger of closing. Sparrow said he thinks more veterans would join Post 6933 if they knew about it, and its mission.

“My sales pitch for recruiting veterans was always, ‘I don’t want you to join the VFW to come to the bar. I want you to be a member because there is strength in numbers. When we lobby for a bill or a VA policy, we want to be able to say we represent 120 veterans, or 200 veterans. It’s always about strength in numbers.”

‘See what happens’

VanDerheyden said he is putting out the word that Post 6933 needs members and donations, and the building, about 175 years old, needs work. It once was the chapel for America’s first veterans’ home, which stood across the street, he said.

VFW posts can continue to exist without a building, meeting instead in firehouses, community centers, and churches, VanDerheyden said. He is talking with the post’s next-door neighbor, the Noroton Fire Department, which may be interested in renovating the post to use as a barracks for firefighters.

“I’m waiting to see what’s out there. I’m making people aware of the situation and trying to develop opportunities based on the feedback I get,” VanDerheyden said. “The phone has started to ring. We’ll see what happens.”

Post members hold a special hope for their VFW, he said. They would like to start a Relief Fund for veterans who can’t make the rent, a mortgage payment, medical bills or burial costs. Now all he can do is help people apply for money from other organizations, VanDerheyden said.

“We would rather be able to provide direct help,” he said.

Non-veterans may rent the VFW hall for $700, use the grounds and drink at the bar. Donations may be made through the post’s Go Fund Me page here.


Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.

a.carella@ctexaminer.com