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Coming Home

August 15
11:04 2013

Denton’s Veterans of Foreign Wars post keeps former soldiers connected in pride.

By Drew Gaines/Contributing Writer

Denton’s Veterans of Foreign Wars post 2205 at 909 Sunset Road is a “members only” kind of place. It stands alone on the north side of town, bordered by strip malls and fast food joints.

Open the heavy wood door and the smell of cigarettes comes on quick. A dark, smoke-stained hallway leads to a long wooden bar, a billiards room and a banquet hall made for Sunday potlucks. At one of the tables four men in their 60s sit in leather backed chairs, smoking and talking. They look up and eye whoever walks in – this time it’s Wayne, their commander.

Wayne Travathan is a short man with a round stomach and deep blue eyes. He wears the traditional Air Force khaki and blue, and dons a ball cap that sits high on his head. Pinned to it are a small American flag and the seal for the Veterans of Foreign Wars post. He greets the men at the table then sits down behind them and lights a cigarette.

“There is one of the few men I would trust to run this place after I’m gone,” Travathan said, pointing to a gray-haired man propped up at the bar alone. His back faces Travathan so that the embroidery on his black leather vest is easy to read. “Once a Marine, Always a Marine,” it read.

Travathan keeps his eyes on the Marine at the bar, looking at him from across the room. The man had trouble with alcohol before he came in. He served in Vietnam and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder during the decades after the war. He sits there, now under the admiring eyes of commander Wayne, who reminds himself of how men change within these walls. Travathan said the old Marine has loosened up since coming here and he doesn’t drink like he used to.

This post is more than a place to socialize, network and share a $2 beer. It’s a place where men and women who have put their lives on the line in a foreign country come together under the bond of their military service. They find understanding here with fellow veterans who have seen war and live with its memories back home. The pride of these veterans displays itself on the walls that bear relics from wars past, and in the men that still salute and greet one another with “hey Sergeant Major.”

This VFW post plays haven for the veterans of the Vietnam War. Most of the men inside, Travathan included, served in that bloody war more than 40 years ago. But today, the age-old center for America’s veterans stands at a crossroads. The post aims to revamp itself as a new generation of soldiers returns home from Iraq and Afghanistan. The old timers will update and renovate this outdated building as they struggle to keep the post relevant to today’s young veterans.

Travathan remembers coming home after the Vietnam War. It was a war the public was overwhelmingly against and soldiers felt the sting of public protests, a sense of abandonment when they came home. Thus, Travathan and his fellow Vietnam vets made a pact. They would give a better welcome to this new generation of veterans.

“Because I didn’t want to see them treated like we were treated,” Travathan said. “Never will one generation of veterans abandon another, and that’s where we stand today.”

Tom Ellis hunches over the bar, swigs his beer and grips his glass with a wiry forearm that bears a heart tattoo blurred with age. He served 22 years in the Army and flew helicopters over Vietnam during the war. It’s just past 1 p.m. on a Tuesday, and Ellis sits back in his stool next to a group of grey-haired vets who line the bar.

“The guys that came home in the 60s and 70s got dog shit thrown at their bus when they got back to San Francisco,” Ellis said. “They were called baby killers.”

In 1967, Ellis, still in his 20s, walked into the VFW and was voted in as a member.

“That’s where everybody went that was coming back from Vietnam, they went to the VFW,” he said.

Some of these Vietnam vets grew up with the organization. They stayed throughout the years and now make up the inner hierarchy that governs the post.

With 400 members, VFW Phil Miller Post 2205 appears to be thriving. But it’s an older crowd. Three elderly women with curly white perms and matching flannels bend over a banquet table to play a game of cards. They are members of the Woman’s Auxiliary Unit and wives of the vets.

These old timers say there is a generation gap at the post. After all, a war just ended as another winds down but the majority of young vets stay away from this smoky old building. The upper echelons like Ellis and Travathan aim to change that.

They expect that veterans from today’s wars have a better time of it coming home. They see the VFW as an outlet to serve these vets. Travathan himself made more than 400 trips to DFW airport to witness soldiers return home from Iraq and Afghanistan. He shook their hands and thanked as many as he could as they stepped off the plane.

“I want to see the outreached hands from old vets like us,” he said.

Last Thanksgiving, the VFW gathered 25 frozen turkeys and all the fixings for a holiday meal. The “old vets” put the goods in baskets and delivered them to the doorsteps of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who suffer from PTSD. The response was overwhelming.

“They have a different perspective for what we stand for,” Travathan said. Some of those young vets have since come into the post.

On a mild February afternoon, Jerry the bartender stands behind the counter with Travathan. The commander comes and goes at all hours of the day.

This time he arrives with two plastic shopping sacks from Lowe’s. He and Jerry rummage through the bags and pull out a box of fasteners, some wood trim and other little items. They represent the start of a new smoking section to be built off the patio.

Since April, members can no longer smoke inside. Some are more excited about the change than others. Travathan, in particular, pushed for it.

The change is part mandatory and part necessary for the organization. It symbolizes a new chapter for Denton’s local VFW post. When the leaders conduct interviews with prospective members, they ask what they would do different with the place. The two most common complaints are: Number one, when you walk in the place smells like an ashtray. And number two, the old vets who sit around don’t make an effort to say hello.

Travathan can help change part of that. The smoking section is the first in a series of planned improvements to the establishment, all aimed to lure in young vets and their families. Before the VFW, the building housed a health spa, so Denton’s post is one of the few in the nation with a swimming pool. There are plans to install an automatic lift in the pool to allow disabled vets to enjoy a dip and rebuild their wounds through physical therapy.

Pass by the post on a Saturday night and you’ll notice the packed parking lot. The billboard out front advertises a live rock n’ roll show for the weekend. On Tuesday nights, the majority of the bar and billiards room host pool tournaments for the veterans, and karaoke is always a hit. It’s harder to attract the younger crowds in a college town, where vets attending school on the GI Bill have more than 100 places to get a drink. But the fresh attempts through charity and rock n’ roll are proving successful.

Once they are here, Travathan hopes to show Iraq and Afghanistan veterans the same camaraderie he and the old boys discovered. They fought separate wars under different circumstances but find solidarity in their service under this roof.

Here are men who have experienced PTSD, some have wounds both physical and psychological. They have seen the horrors of war, lost friends and had to bring those experiences back home. These things stay true from one conflict to the next. But, as Travathan says, veterans take comfort in a place “where they can associate with other people that have experienced the same things in their lives.”

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