A sign in the entrance of the Michael A. Rawley Jr. American Legion Post advertises the space as “members only,” but the Brooklyn-based photographer Maureen Drennan has warned me in advance to ignore it. Drennan has often entered these establishments unannounced: Since 2018, she’s photographed American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts across the northeastern United States, drawn in by what she calls their “lonely poetry.” The Rawley post, an 1860s brownstone in Gowanus that was once a church, is only a few blocks from Drennan’s apartment. Inside, wood-paneled walls shimmer in the glow of incandescent bulbs, the old kind; a crowd of about a dozen packs the bar, their shoes squeaking against vinyl floor tiles. I’ve crashed the birthday party of a favorite bartender.
Two of the oldest veterans’ organizations in the country, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Legion operate a series of outposts across the United States, gathering places for service members and their families that offer privacy and exceptionally cheap drinks (a pint of Budweiser at the Rawley post costs only $3). “It’s a great place to sit and talk with people, or not,” Ron Mironchik told Drennan at a VFW post in New Paltz, New York. In her photo of Mironchik, a Vietnam War veteran and the post’s former elected “commander,” he sits with his wife, Kathy, at the bar, while his son Andrew, an Iraq War veteran and the post’s current commander, serves drinks. Andrew and Kathy bartend on a volunteer basis, working for tips—the bartenders and commanders who staff American Legion and VFW posts typically receive no salary. “There’s a bonding that comes from being in a place with other veterans, people who have been through it,” Ron said. “It’s like a vibration.”
If the vibration he identifies buzzes through the Rawley post, though, I can observe its hum only as an outsider. I’m not a veteran, and Drennan isn’t either. There’s a touch of voyeurism in the experience of viewing her photos, in peering through the windows that they offer into a community neither of us can fully understand. In one, Charlie O’Connor, a sanitation worker from Staten Island who deployed to Kuwait and Iraq, sits with his hands clasped in front of a painting of a tattered American flag. In another, Lauren Williams swells with pride, the first woman elected commander of American Legion Post 346, in Germantown, New York. To meet their gaze in these private portraits feels like ignoring a members-only sign.
In the years that have followed 9/11, the U.S. military presence has simultaneously expanded abroad and become less and less visible at home. A bipartisan reliance on Special Forces and drones has kept American casualties down and U.S. military activity around the world—not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in Syria, Yemen, Niger, Colombia, and more than 150 other countries—out of the front-page news. Against this backdrop, some service members have found ironic comfort in a common expression of frustration: “We’re at war while America’s at the mall.” Even if civilians rarely step inside, the VFW chapters and Legion posts that dot American communities are at least conspicuous, physical reminders that the United States is a nation at war.
Today, however, the future of these organizations and their spaces is uncertain. In the past two decades, the American Legion’s membership has declined by nearly 23 percent; since 1992, the VFW’s has declined by almost half. Even the vibrant Rawley post has reason to worry: Raymond Wrigley, the post’s commander, told me that his older members—veterans of World War II and the Korean War—are dying faster than new members can join. The restaurants, bars, and sought-after apartments of Park Slope have begun to bleed westward toward Gowanus. To the immediate right of the post is an empty lot, listed for sale; next over is a new housing development.
Wrigley speaks with pride of the Maryland militiamen who died fighting the British in the Battle of Brooklyn, among the bloodiest of the Revolutionary War, pointing out their various memorials around the post. Local legend suggests that their sacrifice allowed George Washington to escape from Brooklyn to New Jersey, and that they were buried by the British in an unmarked mass grave not far from the Rawley post (though historians have cast doubt on this claim).
Should the post close, either for want of members or beneath the weight of the forces that have already erased so much of Brooklyn’s history, the “lonely poetry” distilled in Drennan’s images will fade from the present tense. The wood-paneled walls and the cheap drinks, the vinyl floors and the vibration felt only by those with a shared experience—these reminders of the United States’ global entanglements will fade too. But the nation will keep sending its citizens abroad to fight, and Americans at home will keep going to the mall.