The gravel parking lot on Jesters Lane was washed with bluish-white light from outdoor spotlights as night fell on Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4639 in James City County.
Painted green, brown and gray — military camouflage — the building’s front double doors were propped open to the cool November air, sending a ray of inviting yellow light into the parking lot.
Inside, several men and one woman gathered around a shiny wooden bar, but the air did not hang heavy with the smell of alcohol and tobacco, nor the murmur of retold war stories.
The air was clean and energized. A young boy skipped through the hall, climbing under tables and making machinery sounds as the post commander steamed hot dogs in a small kitchen. A small American flag in a vase accompanied salt and pepper shakers and a simple menu on each table.
As the country honors the 100th anniversary of World War I this year, the veterans are in the front of the nation’s mind.
But in Williamsburg year-round, the VFW has trained its sights on attracting a younger generation of veterans, making the VFW a more community- and family-minded atmosphere.
It’s not all about drinking beer and telling war stories, post Commander Ken Shannon, 57, said.
“That’s the VFW of the past,” Shannon said. “I don’t necessarily disagree on the basis that stereotype was founded on, but it’s different now.”
Attracting younger members
On a recent Friday, retired Army Lt. Col. Mark Maggio, 54, leaned back in a wooden high-top chair, sporting a red shirt emblazoned with the VFW logo.
Maggio, a veteran of the 1st Gulf War, 2nd Gulf War, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, serves as the VFW district 3 commander, covering 15 posts between Williamsburg and Warsaw.
“We’ve gotten a lot younger in this post,” Maggio said. “We have one or two World War II vets, a smattering of Korean War vets, then the rest are all Vietnam, the Gulf Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Less than 0.5 percent of the U.S. population are members of the military, and even fewer are eligible to join the VFW. The VFW only accepts veterans or active service members who have been involved in a war or been deployed to a combat zone.
Attracting younger veterans takes a savviness with social media, as well as a willingness to make the VFW a more family-friendly place, Maggio said. In recent years, the Williamsburg VFW created a no-smoking policy to encourage veterans with young families to attend events.
It’s an effort VFW leaders recognize is not over yet, although membership at Post 4639 has increased significantly, from about 150 a few years ago to more than 200 now.
Maggio’s partner, Tina Ethridge, was also at the VFW post that Friday night, wearing an American flag-themed bandana as a headband.
Ethridge’s son, Colton, joined the Army in 2013. He was stationed in Korea, and joined the VFW in July.
Ethridge supported her son’s decision, but questioned whether he would have a strong say in VFW matters as one of the youngest members.
“Some things are still the same, but some things are slowly changing,” Ethridge said.
Shannon’s son, who is in his early 30s, is also a VFW member.
“It’s important for people to have a place to go,” Shannon said. “(My son) has a family and kids and his time is a challenge.”
Keeping history and community
Comprised of concrete blocks, the single-story VFW building was built by hand in the 1970s using salvaged materials from demolished buildings in Greater Williamsburg.
The Williamsburg VFW has always been focused around community events, but now the emphasis is even stronger.
Every third Saturday of the month, the VFW opens its hand-built building to the public for a $7 community breakfast. The post also hosts a grade school essay contests each year, trunk-or-treat and runs a float in the Williamsburg Christmas Parade.
On Sunday, the Williamsburg VFW held a public Veterans Day ceremony at the Veterans Tribute Tower in New Town.
The post also plans to build a community park with memorials for each of the wars in Veterans Park on Ironbound Road.
“We’re trying to do more family-friendly things,” Shannon said.