EDITOR’S NOTE: Students from the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism wrote about people and places around Denton County as part of their spring coursework. This story and upcoming stories feature their work, which also will be showcased in Discovering Denton County — a special publication due out Sunday.
The absence of overhead lighting forces the eyes to adjust to the glare of neon signs hanging around the room.
The bar is the first thing in sight, taking up most of the room. A shuffleboard table sits opposite the bar, lit by a lone light fixture. Electronic game machines populate a back corner, and half a dozen tables claim the remainder of the floor space.
Aside from the embroidered tapestry hanging on the far wall of the back meeting room emblazoned with the words “Thank You Veterans,” nothing about this neighborhood bar, the Norman E. Heitz Memorial Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 10460, would let the outside world in on the secrets its brown corrugated walls hold.
The secrets of wars past, and wars being waged. The secrets of turmoil, pain, heroism and patriotism that only a U.S. veteran would know.
This small sanctuary, almost hidden between adjacent buildings in Lake Dallas, is much more than the neighborhood bar that it appears to be at first glance.
This is the meeting place for America’s heroes — a space that allows the brotherhood, which can only come with military experience, to grow.
The VFW is a congressionally chartered war veterans organization that was established in 1899.
There are 7,644 posts in the United States, with 1.5 million members. Forty-four posts are in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Membership requires an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard and requires a veteran to have served overseas during an operation or conflict.
The largest VFW post in the nation is in Libby, Mont., and is the home post for more than 1,600 members.
“The World War II vets don’t come around much anymore,” says Don Glockel, post commander and Air Force Vietnam veteran. “But we do have guys come in from Vietnam all the way up to Iraq.”
Clif Garrett is one such guy.
He set foot in his first VFW post in 1966 after returning from a two-year tour in Vietnam, and his family history is filled with military service — especially in the Marine Corps.
His father joined the Marines during World War II, and both Garrett and his brother joined the Marines during the conflict in Vietnam.
“I know that when I got my discharge in ’66, the first thing my dad wanted me to do was go down and join the VFW,” he said.
But unfortunately for Garrett, the animosity surrounding the war in Vietnam didn’t stop at the post’s front door.
He even had to face being called a “baby killer” in the one place he should have felt accepted.
He didn’t become an active member of the VFW until he was 50 years old. But when he got involved, he went all in, and even became the commander of Post 10460 in 2005.
“This post was small and the people were friendly. This was a post you could make a difference in,” he said.
The post provides veterans with opportunities they likely will not be able to find elsewhere.
“If you look up there at the bar now, you’ve got construction people, you’ve got butchers,” he said. “Veterans that are out of work. … They come in, and they can sit around, have conversations and they can find a lot of opportunity. It’s like a big family.”
Members of the post will bring in extra goods or leftovers from their gardens, leaving the items on one of the tables, allowing any member the chance to come get something they may need.
The post established its own food bank in the back so that veterans, who often are too proud to go to a community food bank, can get what they need and walk back out with no one ever knowing.
“If it comes to the end of the month, and they needed some help, they can come here and get help, and they never have to drop their head,” Garrett said.
The post also helps provide veterans with disabilities the items they may need, including wheelchairs, and can answer questions for veterans regarding filing for disability and getting assistance from Veterans Affairs.
Despite the membership restriction, the VFW strives to be a beneficial member of its surrounding community.
“We want them to know it is no longer like what it maybe once was,” Garrett said. “We have Friday night steak dinners, band and karaoke, things that get the VFW and the community together.”
And with Lake Dallas being a small community, working together is critical for the post’s success.
“It’s been a very good relationship, and we hope it always is,” he said.
For Garrett, being able to see veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan returning home to crowds cheering for them instead of screaming at them is something much deserved, and an opportunity to give a fellow veteran a justified welcome home.
“When you step off that plane, that’s when a lot of your future attitude is made,” he said. “I think that’s really a great thing for the people coming home today. I really do.”