When it comes to dispensing healthcare, war veterans are a hard group to reach. But bartenders at VFW canteens, who develop family-like ties with patrons, are well-positioned to identify those in crisis and steer them toward professional help.
At lunchtime on a recent warm day, the parking lot of Post 1503 is full of pickups. The air inside is cool and smoky, four flat screens flicker in the dark and the special is spaghetti with meat sauce. Keys is tending bar and every stool is taken up by creatures of habits so set, she can recite with eyes closed who is there and the order in which they are seated. ("Bob, Sam, Donnie, Mac, Benny, Dave, Jerry, Jim ...")
This flag-studded brick building in the northern Virginia suburbs is tucked between the Army's Ft. Belvoir and the Marine Corps base at Quantico. It looks more like a post office than what it is: the biggest VFW post in the country and a study in the damage of war over time. The requirement for membership is simple but steep: honorable service in a combat zone. "Not sitting in Buford, South Carolina," barks bar manager John Meehan, who was in Korea with the Army.
Veterans of every major battle since World War II are members here, separated by decades and bound by war. They lost 85-year-old Vinnie Salzillo last month; he was at Iwo Jima. About two dozen of the younger ones aren't old enough to buy a beer, but they have two tours each in Afghanistan and Iraq behind them.
You don't actually have to be a combat veteran to be in the VFW. You have to have the mimimum "I Was There" Armed Forces Expeditionary ribbon, which I have for being within twenty miles of the Dominican Republic. I could see it from my house! I'm a VFW Life Member (cheaper than annual dues if I live long enough. I have.)
I don't have a VFW Post with a saloon anywhere near me, and I'm too old to drink anyway, but I salute VFW, or any, bartenders who take care of their Vet customers this way.