For over 120 years the initials V.F.W. on buildings scattered from coast-to-coast symbolized a patriotic commitment to our nation. Tracing its roots to the veterans who served in the Spanish-American War in the late 1800s, the Veterans of Foreign Wars has served millions of American service members who fought on foreign soil to protect and defend our freedom.
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VFW posts—which used to be ubiquitous in small towns and big cities across the country as places for fellowship among veterans, providing a place to tell their stories to the only people who could truly understand their experiences, and providing needed services, helping them through the labyrinth of paperwork needed for everything from healthcare to other benefits earned through literally putting their lives on the line for their country—are dying out—leaving many veterans in crisis.
Membership has drastically fallen over the last few decades from a high of over two million to half that number and VFW posts have suffered from a war of attrition, many demolished for gentrification and others abandoned or falling into disrepair from neglect and lack of funding. The social fabric of veterans has suffered as a result at a time when America has been in continuous wars since the early 2000s. The story of these posts is the story of America, once united, now divided and disconnected from our roots.
As a veteran and a life member of the VFW, passing these posts brings a sadness for what I feel is a metaphor for our treatment of those who served. I began photographing them, hoping to bring awareness to a disregard for the honor of the men and women who defend our country. It became a mission and to date I have documented posts in 47 states with a goal of photographing at least one VFW post in all 50 states. I believe these photographs can be a mirror, reminding us that in neglect we show a loss of conscience that contributes to a continuing decline of our democracy.
Every day in this America we lose an average of 22 veterans to suicide. Many veterans, particularly in rural areas, are losing access to the needed services VFWs provide. My goal is to publish photographs that can reach a place in the heart that words alone are incapable of touching and to be a catalyst for a national conversation on how veterans are treated.
All images are copyright Teri Darnell.
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Photo Editor: Mary Stanley, Board President for Atlanta Celebrates Photography