The nation is marking Veterans Day with parades and ceremonies to honor those who served in the U.S. military. In New Orleans, a growing post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars is taking on projects with more and more members.
As Marshall Hevron takes the podium at Post 8973, about 50 VFW members cheer and joke as he outlines what’s in store for the holiday, and what’s coming up for the post itself. A few years ago, it was quite a different scene. Hevron, a former Marine who served in Iraq in 2003, found little to offer fellow veterans when he got involved in early 2005.
“When it started no one else wanted the job. We were down to just a few members and I took it over, but very quickly we got a core group of us together — mostly who’d been in Iraq and Afghanistan — and embarked on an ambitious recruiting campaign, and we are where we are now.”
The hall on Lyons Street looks much the same as it did when he first saw it. But now there are plans to fix up the meeting hall and renovate housing units in the back of the building. Hevron says it’s more than just a social club.
“I could talk forever about the service projects, and we do have some great service projects reaching out to vets. But we quickly realized the biggest service we provide is a sense of camaraderie that people experienced when they were in uniform," Hevron said. "They get out of the service and they go out in the civilian world and they’ve just got no place where they can go and experience that same camaraderie, and have that same experience where everybody sitting to the left and the right has been through the same things they’ve been through.”
One of the few women in the post is Lisa Sayegh. She served in the Army from 1983 to 1988, and retired this year after 17 years of active service in the Air Force. She learned about the post from a student at Tulane University, where she was teaching social work, and from online media reports. She works with veterans and military families in her private practice.
“They were doing things other than drinking beer — even though we do drink beer here, with a beer in my hand, you know — like the résumé clinics and the job assistance, and even the plan is to have some transitional housing when this thing is totally renovated," Sayegh said. "I was just very attracted to it, especially as a social worker, that they were doing something. It seemed like a community service center for veterans.”
One of the members to quickly join Hevron in revitalizing the post is Ryan Smith. The two have been friends since their childhood in New Orleans. Smith was an Army combat engineer from 1996 to 2000, before joining the Louisiana National guard as a construction engineer. He was in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2004. Smith says he knew his skills could be of use.
“I was personally amazed that Hurricane Katrina happens and we have a problem establishing communications and rebuilding efforts and all this kind of stuff when I can go into a foreign land and within 24 hours have an entire city built,” Smith said.
He is working on ambitious plans for creating a wired, energy-efficient post designed with sustainable building standards.
“The general concept is to have a place that allows us to serve as a beacon for the neighborhood and for the city — that our power is going to be on during any kind of catastrophe. That, if people need resources of food and water, that we will be available here.”
Hevron says the days of making personal appeals for new members are over. Thanks to social media and word of mouth, veterans are finding the post, instead of the post trying to find new members. Meetings are held once a month. More information about the post is available at NOLAVFW.org.