Tom Thigpen is succinct when describing his feelings about the closure of the Veteran of Foreign Wars post he joined more than 50 years ago.
“It hurts,” said Thigpen, 82, a veteran of the Korean War and former commander of VFW Post 3200 on Gun Club Road, off River Watch Parkway.
The post’s charter, which dates back at least 70 years, was pulled Tuesday when no one volunteered to become post commander or quartermaster. Without those positions filled, there can be no post, explained member Jim Daskal.
The post’s decline was gradual but seemed to accelerate over the past eight to 10 years as regular members died or could no longer attend meetings and functions. It reached the point that there were not enough active members to hold a membership drive, Daskal said.
The memories of some members stretch back to the original VFW building on Greene Street, when the roster had as many as 1,000 names. There were a few World War I veterans, but most of the young men packing the hall for steak and beer on Friday nights were newly returned from fighting in Europe and the Pacific.
Service projects were important. Veterans visited patients at the Veterans Affairs hospital and Georgia War Veterans Nursing Home; they collected donations by handing out poppies. They were a constant community presence at parades and laid wreaths during the Veterans Day and Memorial Day ceremonies.
“That’s what we were founded for,” said member Robert “Sonny” Nelson.
Just as important was the socializing. Audrey Mahoney was at the post almost as often as her husband, Paul Mahoney, a Navy doctor who served in Vietnam. The VFW was as much a place for therapy as a dance hall, she said. Today’s veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have a network of support from the VA, but that was not in place for older veterans, she said.
The VFW “was a place to go and talk with people who have experienced the same things as you,” she said.
Tuesday’s closure of the VFW ends a 67-year fixture of Alvin Mays’ life. Mays, 90, witnessed the beginning of World War II at Pearl Harbor and was still on the front lines with the Army when Hiroshima was bombed. He witnessed terrible carnage and experienced the worst of jungle fighting in the Pacific.
“There was a long time I didn’t want to discuss it,” said Mays, a past commander. When he was willing to open up, however, he had his friends at the VFW to listen.
There are still two VFWs in Augusta Mays could join. Post 3887 commander Abram Dunn said membership remains at about 60 veterans but growth has been stagnant for years.
A message left Friday for the commander of Post 649 on Windsor Spring Road was not returned.
Mays said he has no interest in joining a new post.
“I’m not going to get involved in another post and be looked at as a member of the post that went under,” Mays said.
Thigpen’s fondest memories were going into the post after work on a Friday and watching members stream in. The noise grew as the afternoon stretched into the evening. About 10 p.m. people started heading home, often joining up again the next morning for a service project in town.
Those times are over, but Thigpen still holds fast to one truth.
“I’m a life member, and they can’t take that way from me,” he said.