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What does your local VFW have in common with your church?

Lukas Udstuen
KBIA/Project 573

One in five Americans now report having no religious affiliation. This number is increasing rapidly. And church attendance in America and Europe is increasing.

But our communities are filled with instances of people finding meaning outside of religion. The Boone County Veterans of Foreign Wars post, for example, offers veterans a place to unite around their experiences of serving in war. While people find meaning in all sorts of places, the VFW in many ways resembles a church.

Don Briggs, commander of the Boone County VFW, sits at a table chatting with other veterans. Members have gathered here for a weekly dinner — tonight, fried chicken and mashed potatoes.

Briggs served two tours in the Vietnam War. At 18, Briggs joined the army. He came from a poor family, and says the army took good care of him. He said by the time he was 21 years old, he had visited every free country in Europe. 

“I had a wonderful time when I was in the military,” Briggs said. “But, a lot of the time that I was there, I was getting shot at. We’re not very popular people.”

The organization’s mission is “veterans helping veterans.” you can only join if you’ve served in combat. For many veterans, a place like this is meaningful. Briggs said veterans here speak a different language.

“We understand each other,” Briggs said. “It’s like your group of church, you understand each other.”

Briggs says the VFW is definitely not a church. But several similarities make the VFW look like one. It’s a specific group of people with a shared experience finding meaning outside a house of worship.

And, Briggs says the VFW members serve each other. Not only do they help members register for medical services, a service officer keeps track of which members are in the hospital— veterans take time to visit each other. Even earlier on this day, Briggs said a man asked for a ride to the hospital.

“He was a member of this post, and he wanted to pay me because I took him to the doctor,” Briggs said. “I said ‘why would you pay me to take you to the doctor?’ I said ‘you’re a member of my post – you’re a comrade in arms to me – right?’”

While this type of support might seem ‘church-like,’ for these veterans it’s not a matter of faith. Briggs, and many of the veterans I spoke to at the VFW, say they don’t often talk about faith.

But still, while it might not be a matter of faith for veterans, it is a matter of life and death. The Associated Press obtained Pentagon figures indicating that last year, more troops committed suicide than were killed in combat.

Briggs says the VFW can offer veterans a place for peers to support each other.

VFW members meet once a month. Just like a church, the ceremonies feel almost ritualistic. Each week, the services begin the same way. At 7 p.m., the meeting gavels into session.

Briggs said while the ceremonies are pretty generic, many of the leaders do believe in a higher being.

“We don’t say that you have to get up and down and kneel, and do everything else – but what it does, is it draws you in a little bit tighter to the group,” Briggs said.

Briggs said there’s even a bible at the meetings — though he said it’s mostly symbolic.

Now, during the ceremonies, members discuss mostly business related to the VFW — trying to keep the organization going, or introducing new members.

Briggs says the first thing families often say to veterans after returning from war is “you’re not the same person you were when you left.”

And here at the VFW, veterans don’t feel like they have to explain themselves for fighting in a war. There’s no need to explain how in war, the lines of what you’re capable of – start to fade.

Briggs said in war, the rules change. It doesn’t matter whether you’re against killing another man. Briggs said after suddenly arriving in a combat zone, everyone on the other side wants to blow you up or stab you in the back.

“All of the sudden, the guy that you’re calling a murderer is your protector,” Briggs said. And you’re his protector. And you’re the guy that you were calling a murderer.”

The VFW is intended to create a place for veterans to grapple with these experiences together. While members can bond over service in combat, our communities are filled with similar organizations where people with similar experiences can find a shared meaning.

“Everybody has their own way of dealing with the human condition,” Debra Mason, director for the Center on Religion and the Professions, said. “I think there are struggles and joys about it no matter what generation you’re talking about.”

Mason said America’s relationship with community organizations like these is changing. Church attendance in America and Europe is decreasing. So too is attendance at 4H Youth Organizations, Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs. Nationally, the VFW even follows this trend.

“They’re kind of the glue that keep our cities, our communities, and our towns cohesive in some ways,” Mason said.

Mason said America is living through two significant changes right now. First, we’re more mobile. Years ago, people grew up in a congregation and they would stay in the community. Now, people move away, try other religious institutions. Upon arriving, they might not feel as welcome, so they might choose not to belong.

Also, people just aren’t coming back to church like they used to. While Baby boomers and earlier generations might have strayed from the church for a while, after having kids, they returned. Younger generations aren’t following this trend. Still, Mason says research simply isn’t available to show how people are replacing church. But that doesn’t mean they don’t pray.

“It’s just that they’re finding nourishment for their various viewpoints in other places than in formal institutions and denominations — and those things have really emerged over the last 500 years,” Mason said.

Mason says many community organizations can serve people’s need to gather with those who’ve had similar experiences. And while she says she hasn’t personally experienced war, she can see why the VFW is valuable.

“When you’ve been in war, I don’t think there’s anything that connects or compares to being in war, and to having to kill another human being, and to have been shot at yourself,” Mason said.

Briggs says he has people at the VFW who came back from war wounded, suffering from PTSD. For some, he says war will never go away. Even all these years later, it’s in their heads all the time. But the VFW accepts these people.

“And we keep ‘em – you know, near and dear. But everybody else out there says, yeah that guy’s weird. He’s not weird – he got that way because you didn’t go – you weren’t there. We were.”

This story from the reporting collaboration Project 573, which has explored the voices and experiences of an increasing number of Americans who describe themselves as unaffiliated with a particular religion. Look for more Project 573 stories upcoming on KBIA and in the Columbia Missourian.

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