They were supposed to march in parades on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, carry the red, white and blue on Flag Day, sell red Buddy poppies to help disabled veterans, and teach schoolchildren about patriotism.
Instead, the members of Post 3509 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars turned their Wildwood headquarters into a corner bar, according to state Adjutant Ken Hageman. The state organization shut down the 82-year-old post in January and last week began emptying the padlocked building with plans to put it up for sale, he said.
"It's been a long time coming," Hageman said Friday. "They failed to be a fraternal, patriotic, historical, charitable, or educational entity of the Veterans of Foreign Wars."
Post Commander David Callen could not be reached for comment Friday. Callen, identified as the longest-served commander of the post, told the Cape May County Herald that the post's membership had declined drastically, with only a handful of active members showing up for monthly meetings. A Vietnam veteran, Callen said the post was unable to recruit younger veterans to join.
"I was doing the job of the commander all the way down the line to mopping the floors," Callen told the paper.
According to Hageman, the post had about 100 members on its roster, but about a fourth of them had died and 50 members lived outside of the Cape May County area, likely summer tourists who joined the post "so that they had a place to drink while they were in Wildwood." The post even skipped the annual state VFW convention on the Wildwood boardwalk, he said.
"We're a lot more than a corner bar," Hageman, who served in the Gulf War, said of the VFW. "They lost their direction."
Hageman said the post's officers were relieved of their duties. The members are eligible to transfer to other posts. Nearly 8,000 veterans live in the county.
Founded in 1899 after the Spanish-American War, the VFW promotes camaraderie among veterans, advocates for benefits for those who served, provides scholarships for high school students, and works in local towns on community service projects such as sponsoring scout troops and youth sports programs. In New Jersey, the state's 224 chapters raised more than $3 million last year and logged 40,000 hours of community service, Hageman said.
"Our mission is to ensure that every veteran gets taken care of," he said.
Like VFW posts around the country, New Jersey's have seen a decline in membership, largely due to an aging population of World War II and Vietnam veterans. Since 1990, more than 3,000 VFW posts have closed and the membership has dropped from about 2.1 million to 1.4 million, said Randi Law, spokeswoman for VFW national headquarters in Kansas City, Mo.
"Less than 1 percent of the population serves their country today, which leaves fewer eligible veterans to join our ranks," Law said in an email. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that at one point the country was losing 1,200 World War II veterans a day, "and that's a tough number to fill," she said.
New Jersey has about 419,000 veterans, Hageman said. Burlington County has 31,669, Camden County 26,507, and Gloucester County 16,456.
The Wildwood post was the second closed by the state organization in the last year, Hageman said. In July, Ewing Post 7298 was shut down for similar bylaws violations for operating largely as a bar and nightclub and its charter was revoked, he said.
In November, the state VFW reached a consent decree with the state Division on Civil Rights to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by the post's barmaids, Hageman said. A settlement was reached with the victims and the VFW agreed to conduct training for all its posts, he said.
"We don't tolerate that type of behavior," Hageman said.