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Years after post hall ruined, VFW hopes to return home

South Boston News / May 13, 2019

Having gone without a home for three years, members of VFW Post 8243 hope to soon to return to their familiar quarters in Halifax overlooking Banister Lake.

The veterans organization has been unable to use the post hall ever since an April 2016 mass shooting inside the structure left it unsafe to occupy.

“It put stress on the building and caused the building itself to shift,” said incoming VFW Post 8243 Commander Odie Lewis of the pandemonium that broke on the night of April 24, 2016, when a shooter opened fire on a birthday party taking place at the post hall. Now, “the objective is to see whether we can restore the building … or tear it down and build a new one.”

The Danville man who opened fire at the VFW, Malik Cobbs, was found guilty of malicious shooting into an occupied building and other offenses and received an active eight-year prison stint for his crimes. But for VFW members, there was no undoing the damage.

Three years later, the goal is to rebuild the post hall — through the fund raising help of friends and supporters in the community.

For the past couple of months, VFW Post 8243 has been holding weekly bingo fund raisers at the South Boston Fire Support Center on Wilborn Avenue. Volunteers have pitched in to help VFW members organize and run the games, and dozens of others have turned out to play — both to show support for the VFW’s efforts and for the sake of a fun time.

“We just started it,” said Lewis of VFW bingo night every Monday at 7:25 p.m. “So far it’s gone favorably.

“I’m impressed by the turnout,” Lewis added. “There are people who just love playing bingo.”

On Saturday, June 22, the VFW will hold on another fund raising venture: a Rats and Rods Car Show & Vendor Bazaar, set to take place at Halifax County High School in the student parking lot beginning at 4 p.m. The Rats and Rods show is being organized by Thurstie Sherman of Virgilina, who annually puts together a community fund raiser to benefit a local charity.

“My husband was Coast Guard, my stepson was a Marine,” said Sherman. “I just feel like our veterans don’t get the recognition and support they should. I feel like I can help.”

The June 22 event will feature displays of classic cars and trucks, hot rods and custom cars and motorbikes, along with a 50/50 prize raffle, food and merchandise vendors, rental booths, music and games. The VFW is seeking event sponsors, in amounts from $100 to $1,000. Prospective sponsors can contact Sherman at 434-222-5258.

The movement to restore the VFW Post meeting hall comes 63 years after the organization first moved into the facility, at a scenic Halifax setting overlooking Banister Lake.

By the 1990s, said Lewis, VFW Post 8243 had around 125-130 members. The membership has since declined to around 80 to 85 veterans. “We’re getting older,” said Lewis.

But the VFW continues to play an active role in the community: providing scholarships for local students, holding essay and art contests in the schools, and teaching youths about the history and significance of the flag and America’s veterans.

The VFW in Halifax also joins with the national Veterans of Foreign Wars organization to support health care and combat homelessness and suicide among veterans, and to help fund the National Home for Veterans.

The organization’s core mission, however, continues to be providing support for combat veterans in their home communities.

Not having a physical location where members can congregate and share their thoughts and experiences has hampered the Halifax VFW.

“We have people who deal with PTSD issues. Being able to be around other people who have similar problems is therapeutic,” said Lewis. “That is one of advantages to having a post, to have a place where people can socialize and be with other people who understand each other.

“Guys who have been in combat, they will open up to other people who’ve been in combat — where with the ordinary citizen, they wouldn’t.”

Lewis served in the Navy from 1972 to 1992, missing out on the tail end of the Vietnam War (the ship he was assigned to at the time was taken out of deployment for scheduled maintenance.) However, he served in Desert Storm/Desert Shield in Iraq, 1990-1991, making him eligible for VFW membership. A prerequisite for members is military service during times of combat.

“A majority of our members now are from [the] Vietnam [War],” Lewis observed.

By rebuilding in Halifax, the VFW hopes to attract new members who have taken part in more recent combat operations — in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance. The local effort is taking place on a parallel track with the national VFW, which is also stepping up efforts to grow the membership ranks.

“They’re trying to be more aggressive in their recruiting,” said Lewis.

The local organization has continued to hold monthly meetings at the Sportsman’s Club next door to the VFW site in Halifax. (“They’ve been nice to let us use their building,” said Lewis.) But to revitalize the VFW’s role in the community, members want to reopen the home they have occupied since 1946.

Whether that means trying to renovate the damaged post hall, or putting up a new one, will depend on a number of factors — the success of fund raising not least among them.

The estimated cost to restore the VFW to its existing size is around $300,000, said Lewis. That cost includes compliance with modern-day building codes, including ADA disability access, an issue of special relevance to the VFW’s mission of aiding wounded warriors. Due to the high expense, “we may not build a building the same size we have now,” Lewis added.

But VFW members have only begun to assess their options. A smaller building, or renovation of the existing post hall — nothing has been ruled out, although Lewis said, “more likely than not, we’re going to be leaning towards a building a new one because of the disability act and other things that need to be done.”

If the VFW is able to regain a home, Lewis said the local organization will go back to serving another function in the community: hosting outside events.

Before its destruction, the VFW Post 8243 was the scene of community gatherings, candidate forums, and other functions.

“We’re not just trying to do things for ourselves,” said Lewis. “We’re trying to do things for the community. Without the post, we cannot do things of that nature.”

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