Note: I started this post on Veteran’s Day, but struggled with it.
I always think about Grandma when I see veteran’s memorials…
In her later life Grandma always sold poppies, until she couldn’t drive any longer (due to the diabetic ulcers mentioned in Carpe Diem).
She was a die-hard VFW Ladies Auxiliary member. She ran her local group with an iron hand from the secretary-treasurer position that she held for probably about 20 years. I still have several photo albums and a rules book somewhere in the garage. It’s hard to know what to do with them.
Within the VFW her particular cause was disabled veterans. She put on many a spaghetti dinner to raise money to help them.
My grandfather was a WWII veteran
My grandfather fought in the Pacific in World War II. He came back with what we now call PTSD. In those days it was sometimes called “shell shock”, but it was also viewed as a weakness. Grandpa was a marine, so weakness wasn’t an option.
Today, perhaps, there might have been help available. Back then I’m pretty sure he would “man-up, marine!” and never talk about the painful memories. My grandfather who was a sensitive man never got over the trauma of the war.
After the war
I know little detail from that time, I believe it was too painful for Grandma to talk about it much. I do know that Gramps took to drinking a lot when he got back. Somehow he did pull out of the extreme level of alcoholism, but struggled with drinking on and off, without seeking help, for the rest of his life. Rather like the malaria he picked up.
For my grandmother the time after the war must have been a kind of hell. She was quite young herself, 22 when the war ended. She had a young child, an alcoholic husband and her widowed mother to care for, and not too much later she was pregnant. She worked, my grandfather worked and went to school, and they were very poor.
We try to do what we can
I think that being involved with the VFW in her later years was her way of helping those who were in a situation like she was in when she was younger. Providing a place to go with people who have similar backgrounds, helping out the families. It gave her a place to talk to other widows about her age and was an informal support group for her.
I’m afraid that I was less sympathetic to the VFW than she was. I saw it primarily as a drinking club (maybe they aren’t all, but the Desert Hot Springs one really seemed to be a members-only bar that served food now and then). I wasn’t particularly thrilled at being hit on by drunk veterans, which happened several times when I was helping grandma with her spaghetti dinners and so forth. Grandma liked me to put in appearances, and I did, but I was never comfortable there.
My grandparents, to the best of my knowledge, were not involved with the VFW when they were in their own post war period. I felt like the VFW would not have been helpful to them when Grandpa was drinking too much, and that would be true for returning veterans today.
For those reasons I felt a bit odd seeing the energy she put into the VFW and never felt there was particular value in it.
In the end it was about being together
But maybe I was too analytical (my curse). When I took her back to California for a visit (turns out it was her last) several friends from her VFW experience were very excited to see her and arranged a special get-together. The value was not the VFW itself, but the community and the joy they found in being together.
I never connected the VFW as a place of value. Not because I do not support veterans, I feel like the VFW doesn’t really help veterans so much as give them a place to go and drink together. The organization is dying. I truly hope that better, more healthy ways for veterans to share experiences are available, ones that do not rely on drinking.
However, for Grandma it had value, it was a place of community, and that is something we all need.