While much has changed since Metzger-Crook VFW Post 6504’s charter 75 years ago in Waterloo, the post’s overall mission has stayed the same: to serve veterans and foster camaraderie among them.
“There are a lot of (veterans) that don’t transfer into civilian life very well sometimes, and we’re here to help them if they need assistance in that, because everybody (in the VFW) is someone that you can talk to and they understand what you’re saying,” Waterloo VFW Commander John Fuller, a former Army infantryman, said. “So, it gives you someone to talk to about stuff that happened when you were in the service.”
Fuller said that aside from this direct social support, membership in the VFW gives veterans access to many helpful programs.
The post thanks veterans every year on Veterans Day with a special celebration, which has grown in recent years to involve the city, park district, American Legion and schools. Post 6504 also takes turns with the legion in hosting Memorial Day services on the courthouse lawn.
Post 6504 assists veterans outside Monroe County as well through a multitude of programs.
As Fuller mentioned, a typical year includes “buddy” poppy sales during the VFW’s famous fish fry Fridays. This long-time tradition in part benefits the VFW National Home for Children, according to Waterloo VFW Auxiliary President Emma Wienhoff, who has been involved with auxiliaries across the state since she was 17.
“This is for veterans who have families who are homeless, who don’t have the funds to support their family,” Wienhoff said of the National Home. “The National Home gives them a place to go.”
These tributes and assistance do not even begin to scratch the surface of all the Waterloo VFW does. Some may find this hard to believe considering there were only 14 veterans present at the club’s first meeting in February 1946.
Today, the post consists of 200 veterans.
At this initial meeting, Waterloo VFW founders decided to name the post after Monroe Metzger and William P. Crook, the first two Monroe Countians to die in World War II.
A few months later in April 1946, the group’s charter was issued. The document contained 108 names.
While the VFW now allows women members, membership requirements largely remain the same as they did during Post 6504’s conception, current trustee and previous commander Butch Sparwasser explained.
“You didn’t necessarily have to be firing a gun in combat, but you had to be in a combat zone,” the Marine veteran said. “Some of them were doing medical supplies and so forth, but if you were there, you are qualified for the VFW.”
The post’s auxiliary has grown tremendously as well since it was instituted just months after the post was formed. This was in part due to the auxiliary later opening its doors to more individuals who have a connection to at least one veteran eligible for VFW membership.
“We started out with our original charter with 23 members and the last auxiliary member on that charter died a few years back, and it has evolved like everything else,” Wienhoff said. “We now have 152 members in our auxiliary alone, and we’re still looking for members, not only ladies, but men can now join our auxiliary. So it’s not just an auxiliary for women. It’s an auxiliary that supports the post and the post also has women members.”
She largely attributes this growth to those who came before her.
“All of our auxiliary presidents have been amazingly good leaders,” Wienhoff said. “To go 75 years and be able to increase their membership almost every year, to be able to support and help the community and our primary purpose which is to support our veterans (is amazing).”
Both Fuller and Sparwasser said the auxiliary is a primary factor in the post’s success. In fact, it would have not thrived these 75 years without them.
“Our post would not survive without the assistance our auxiliary gives us,” Fuller said. “We would’ve had to close our doors years ago if it wasn’t for the auxiliary.”
Throughout the post’s 75 years, it has served vets who fought in many different conflicts.
Fuller said there is one thing sets recent veterans’ experiences apart from those who came before them.
“When we’re sitting around after a meeting, they’ll discuss things that happened to them while they were in whichever war they were in, and everything is basically the same now as it was with the guys in World War II, but the modernization of everything, that’s where things have really changed a lot,” Fuller said.
Fuller explained this impacted everything from combat to getting to the war zone in the first place.
“In World War II, it took them two months to get over there into the country before they could fight. A lot of them got sick on the ship and didn’t live. I was in Desert Storm in 1990, where I sat on a plane for 14 hours and was halfway around the world,” he said. “I sat in the country for two months before the war actually started, whereas … we weren’t even involved with World War II until after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the war had already been going on for some time by (the) time (America joined).”
Sparwasser said over his 50 years in the VFW, involvement with the group has become a family affair for many.
“More families are involved (today),” Sparwasser said. “When I joined it in 1971, they did a great job but it wasn’t the camaraderie with the families like it is today and today our younger members don’t have a lot of time to give because their children are playing soccer and baseball and basketball. So it has changed in that effect, but we still have the camaraderie of the members when they get together.”
The VFW hall is not only a gathering place for these families, but also many other local groups. As Fuller said, the post frequently donated its hall to others in pre-COVID times for benefits, dances and even funeral receptions.
“That’s part of what we’re here for: to support the veterans of the community and assist people in need in any way we can,” Fuller said.
Wienhoff pointed out the post and auxiliary’s Youth Activities Program – which includes the “Get Excited for the Red, White and Blue” national anthem singing contest, “Illustrating America” art contest, scholarships and more – is extremely active.
In addition, it also sponsors the Boy Scouts in Waterloo.
Wienhoff said it is important to involve all youth in patriotic activities.
“I think the community needs activities for the young that (promote) Americanism – to work with flags, put flags on cemeteries, (and other) things that mean so much to our veterans,” she said.
She said the relationship the VFW formed with the community goes both ways.
“People have no idea how much the VFW actually does for this community, and the community has also helped us so much,” Wienhoff noted. “We really want to thank the community for all their support and understanding.”
In fact, the community is the reason the post made it through the pandemic, Wienhoff said.
“We were very fortunate that the City of Waterloo allowed us to continue our fish frys and do it on a (carry-out) basis. That’s the reason we survived,” she said. “That is how we maintained our income, because of the community (supporting) that.”
Fuller said he is particularly proud of this feat considering the pandemic forced many posts across the nation to permanently close their doors.
“During the COVID pandemic, at the beginning of it … a lot of posts, if they didn’t lose the post they almost lost it because of having to be closed and everything,” he said.
The post and auxiliary hope to bounce back stronger than ever. Sparwasser said an increase in involvement is necessary to achieve this goal.
VFW membership is declining every year across Illinois, so all of the posts that are involved in the state have to try to get their membership back up. That’s what Post 6504 is doing.
“We’re always looking for qualified members,” Sparwasser said.
Sparwasser said those who do not meet formal post or auxiliary requirements can still volunteer with events and become part of the VFW community.
“We have an open invitation to any veteran that qualifies from the service to come in,” Sparwasser stressed. “Even if they don’t qualify, we like to have them down there. We can’t say that they can be a member, but they can still come in. We have an open door policy.”
Those looking to get involved in the VFW may call the post at 618-939-7999. For questions related to the auxiliary, call 618-939-4496.
Metzger-Crook VFW Post 6504 will celebrate its 75th birthday with a free public event this Sunday, Nov 7. The post is located at 406 Veterans Drive.
Doors open at 3 p.m., with food served starting at 5 p.m.