Sit with Dan Fryman and Bob Hernandez long enough and you may get a word in. Unless the discussion is about their Veterans of Foreign Wars post and the comeback they’re attempting at one of the nation’s oldest chapters. Then you have little chance.
As Veterans Day approaches, Post 112 is like many VFWs nationally. It has much to celebrate, but battles the reality that veterans of World War II, the Korean War and even the Vietnam War are dying and reducing membership.
“We’re rich in history here,” said Fryman, the post commander, “but where do you go from there?”
They go forward with a plan of celebrating the post’s past while putting together an all-out recruiting plan for new members, mostly from America’s wars of the past 25 years.
Post 112 at one time was America’s biggest VFW chapter — from 1952-55, as World War II vets were active and Korean War veterans returned home.
“You could have virtually any event with 5,000 members and the place will be full,” said Hernandez, the post’s senior vice commander. “But then as people started dying off, there was no catalyst to keep things going.”
Attrition set in over time, and now the post at 1560 S. Topeka has less than 500 members. Roughly 30 are considered active members; the rest are considered non-active, and Fryman said the average age of non-active members is 80 to 85 years.
So Fryman, who joined Post 112 less than a year ago and became commander after seven months, worked on a recruitment plan.
Get the word out about 112. Change the post’s perception from a place for veterans to go drink and tell stories, to a place for veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to bring their families.
“There’s been a stigma,” said Fryman, who served in the Navy for three years during Vietnam. “New vets don’t want nothing to do with VFWs. All they hear is old vets just drink. It’s a culture thing we have to change.”
It’s a problem not just in Wichita. Five Kansas posts have closed in the last year. At Post 112, 18 members at a recent meeting was considered a great turnout.
So Fryman and his officers have been recruiting non-stop. Eleven new members and five transfers have joined Post 112 in Fryman’s four months of command.
“He (Fryman) has a lot of passion and time,” said Hernandez, whose Army National Guard unit served in Iraq in 2008-09. “He puts in a lot of time here. As people see his efforts, word is spreading.”
Fryman also created a new public relations position for Greg Zuercher, a recent addition to Post 112. Zuercher served 22 years, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, for the Air Force and Army. His role will be to make contacts through younger war veterans. He has a journalism degree and was a public information officer while in Afghanistan.
“The Iraq and Afghanistan vets communicate online,” Zuercher said. “The key is to get them involved face to face.”
Part of the face-to-face time will be spent changing perceptions of what a 21st Century VFW post is about. There will still be a bar and drinking, but the perception of a saloon hall has to end.
Perception also has to change in the public. The post on Friday will have a flag-raising ceremony at Andover’s Wheatland Elementary, then spread to area supermarkets to hand out Buddy Poppies, the small flowers used to remember soldiers who died during wartime.
In January 2020, Post 112 will celebrate 100 years. Post leaders hope it’s with a surge in membership.
“Veterans are the glue, the fiber that holds the country together,” Zuercher said. “They’re proud to stand for something.”