vfw post 5195 is located on the corner of Van Brunt and Sullivan streets. It has been for 70 years. Some say it was once a funeral parlor; others argue that the funeral parlor was across the street, where the Ladies Auxiliary Club now meets. Gerard, a sharp-tongued Vietnam veteran and drinker of Budweiser, claims that the building used to be Mrs. Nichol’s Army and Navy store. The original VFW was situated down the street, he says.
These are the kinds of mild arguments that break up the quiet of a weekday afternoon at the post. The conversation is sparse. Stories that do break through the silence often involve mentions of friends now dead. Seated at the wooden bar, the vets mostly prefer to smoke cigarettes and watch the horse races on TV, while John, the bartender, places each man’s choice of bottled beer in front of him as soon as the last one’s gone.
He is one of several Johns who frequent the post. There’s also the John who sits sentry at a table, the first person you see when you walk in, analyzing racetrack odds. Then there’s John the retired veterinarian, a relative newcomer, who closed his practice near the Barclays Center after eighteen years of caring for Brooklyn pets. He got his start working with animals as a young man in the army, training and handling scout dogs in Vietnam.
The rest of the regulars — this Red Hook Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter claims 69 members — have called this place a second home from anywhere between one and six decades. Most show up for “Old-Timers’ Day” and other reunion events, but a few come religiously, including two 90-year-old World War II veterans who were around when the post opened in 1943.
“This place is the Alamo,” Gerard says, describing the VFW as “the last bastion” of old-school Red Hook — the one that existed before the “yippies, yuppies, carpetbaggers, and interlopers” came in, opened their “fly-by-night” businesses and drove up all the rents. Gerard grew up down the street and often passed the post as a kid. Before he served, he wasn’t allowed in — a rule that has since been relaxed. Veterans or not, a bar is a bar. “You come here to drink,” he says, before starting in on another one.
On Saturdays, the atmosphere livens up, with vets of all ages warming the red-padded bar stools along with their wives, friends, and the odd off-duty cop. The atmosphere grows heady with Marlboro smoke. A sing-along to “This Magic Moment” is not unheard of. The stories I heard from veterans at the post competed, as they were recounted, with the clamor of classic rock, laughter, and attempts to get the last joke in, a shared pursuit that transcends generational boundaries.
The VFW is a neighborhood fixture for both its members and the community at large, serving not only as a watering hole but also as a safe haven during hard times. As these stories show, hard times have been easy to come by in Red Hook, as they have in the rest of Brooklyn and beyond. Yet the post remains a stronghold. The lights on the awning outside blaze on through the night.
Joe Ruggiero is one of two World War II vets that claims a regular spot at the bar. He’s known here as “Joe Chips.” Every Saturday he comes to the post with a supersized bag of tortilla chips and doles them out.
Lithe and lively at 89 years old, even Joe is incredulous at his age. “I don’t believe it,” he says, nursing a bottle of Budweiser. “Nobody does.”
Joe speaks of his experiences with calm clarity, his blue eyes in turns intent and impish. At one point he offers to put on his sailor suit and take me out to dinner. “Bet it still fits you!” the man sitting next to him at the bar, Rob, chimes in.
Joe enlisted in the Navy at 17 years old, five months after the war broke out. “I didn’t know anything about the war,” he says. A friend had been drafted into the Army but didn’t want to go, so asked if Joe would volunteer for the Navy with him instead. With little thought, Joe agreed. His parents signed the consent form, and he began four years of service.
“We were new. We were all rookies,” he recalls. “But we got experience.”
Joe left Brooklyn for six weeks of boot camp and then trained on a battleship to fire an assortment of artillery. Afterwards, he was assigned as a 22-millimeter gunner on the USS Thurston (AP-77). “I went to school at P.S. 77,” he says. “So maybe that was lucky for me.”
Joe was lucky in many respects. The ship left out of the harbor in Red Hook, so he was able to visit home when the ship made port in the States, unlike most of his comrades. Even more fortuitous was the ship’s unassailability: despite a number of near misses it endured, the AP-77 wasn’t once hit.
The ship was the first to bring American troops to Europe, shuttling crops of 1,800 soldiers to Europe, North Africa, and later, the Pacific, and bringing back the wounded. After its first round trip to Europe, it went to Sicily, Marseille, and Casablanca, taking troops back to the States between each visit to a foreign port. Joe saw a leper colony in Africa, and was offered up an Italian bride while he was on shore patrol in the south of France.
“It was a good experience,” he says, “And a good scenic tour, too.”
Rob breaks in, asking Joe to tell me about bringing troops to the shore on D-Day. The story touched him when he heard it, he says. Joe obliges. He still remembers the names of each of the four ships that were sailing alongside the AP-77 that day — the Scott, the Hughes, the Rutledge, and the Bliss — all of which were torpedoed, while his, the Thurston, emerged unscathed. He also recalls the sound of troops from those ships screaming from the water. Following orders from above, there was nothing they could do. “We had to move out. We couldn’t pick up survivors.”
“We were lucky,” he repeats.
I ask Rob, who is a regular at the post, if he is a veteran. He says he’s not. He was in school in 1972 and wasn’t enlisted for Vietnam. “I have a draft card,” he assures me, adding, “I wasn’t going to volunteer at that time.”
“I think that was smart,” I say.
“So did I, at that time,” he says.
After Normandy, Joe says, the AP-77 went to the Pacific to bring supplies to the islands where troops were stationed, then made an invasion in Okinawa and Iwo Jima. After the Americans dropped the atomic bomb, they brought wounded soldiers back to Pearl Harbor. Joe was in San Francisco when Japan surrendered. Only two weeks later did he make it back to Brooklyn: transportation was backed up with servicemen returning home.
After a block party for the neighborhood boys, life resumed as usual. He met a couple of his buddies who had also come home from the war. They were called the “52/20 club,” for the $20-a-week wages they earned in the army.
“It was hard to get a job,” Joe recalls. He took the opportunity to go to several Brooklyn GI schools. His first was upholstery school. After surviving a world war Joe couldn’t hack the work — he was allergic to the dust.
Joe met his wife, who worked at the luncheonette on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Union Street, where Joe and his friends hung out. He weighed in at 98 pounds, so she made him milkshakes to try and put some meat on his bones. He earned $90 a week from the Army as a married man, and his wife found a job at a clothing factory.
One day Joe was asked by the owner of a furniture-repair shop to strip a green sofa. He took the key and went down to the basement, only to find two green sofas. “Which one do I strip? I figured I’d do the worse one,” Joe remembers. What seemed like the logical choice turned out to be the wrong one. “He came down to check up on me and said, ‘I don’t think I can use you.’”
Joe then got a job putting pads on kitchen seats, but he didn’t excel there, either: “I couldn’t make a day's pay.” From there he went to another GI school to learn to repair sewing machines, but the school had only one to practice on, “maybe from 1910.” Needless to say, he wasn’t much use in that area of the job market.
After a season working on the Hudson River ferry, Joe found the job that would buoy him for the rest of his career. He took a civil service exam and began working on the Staten Island ferry, first as a deckhand and then as a supervisor.
Twenty-five years later, Joe found that retirement didn’t suit him, so he landed a job on the Governors Island ferry, again working his way up to supervisor. He continued for another thirteen years, until the closing of the Coast Guard station forced him to take a real retirement at the age of 73.
“I think the best jobs are on the water,” Joe says, attributing his good health to wine, cigars, and salt air.
The seaworthy escapades haven’t stopped, though they’ve gotten more comfortable. This October, Joe went on a cruise with his son to the Bahamas.
Despite the fact that Michael Chirieleison — known by everyone as “Mickey” — has been the Post’s longest-running commander, he says he only joined on a dare. Someone had doubted that he fought in Vietnam, and so Mickey showed up with his medals and DD-214 (his service record) in tow. “He didn’t believe me,” Mickey says. “I only did it to get back at him.”
Mickey’s surname comes from the Christian liturgy’s Kyrie eleison: “Lord have mercy.” “I used to be very popular at Catholic school,” he says. “The nuns used to grab me and say, ‘Your name’s so holy, and you’re so bad.’”
Mickey was a teenager working at Rocco’s candy store on Fifth Avenue between 21st and 22nd streets (“I was the best ice cream soda maker on planet Earth”) when he and fifteen other guys from what’s now South Slope piled on a bus to enlist. Mickey still recalls the date: January 22, 1966.
Among the crowd was a man known as “Tom the Italian,” who now sits at the bar next to Joe as he tells this story, tossing in the occasional contribution. Mickey used to make fun of Tommy when he first arrived, a few years Mickey’s junior and fresh from Italy. But he also taught him English.
“He was very generous then, too,” Tommy says. As the first one of the group to start working — the rest ended up getting jobs at pizzerias — Mickey liked to take a few dollars and treat his buddies to the occasional day at Coney Island.
Many of the framed medals on the wall of the post are Mickey’s. At 17, Mickey became a paratrooper. “I got a picture of me. I look like a baby. I was jumping out of planes,” he says, remarking, “the first day I was jumping out of planes was the first day I was ever in a plane.”
I ask him why he and his friends from the neighborhood volunteered for Vietnam. “I grew up playing with soldiers, and I know every war movie that ever existed. I was actually a patriotic person,” he says. “All these guys fought for America, and this is what I thought that you were supposed to do. This was the right thing to do.”
The real catalyst for his enlistment, he says, was John F. Kennedy’s appearance on TV holding a green beret. “The plan was for us all to become Green Berets,” he says.
“I was lucky. I was trained for two years before I went to Vietnam,” Mickey says.
The first step was to go down to Fort Dix in New Jersey. It was January and 10 degrees out. “I cried,” Mickey recalls. “I called up my grandfather, I said, ‘Dad, you gotta get me out.’”
It took three or four days, he says, until he got used to the “torture” the officers inflicted. “You see everyone else going through it, and you say, ‘To hell with it.’”
After receiving advanced infantry training, he volunteered to be a paratrooper and went to jump school. There he got a letter from the captain: he was being called to Bad Tölz, Germany, to train for the Green Berets, a summons that “came out of nowhere.”
In the end, Mickey never made the Green Berets — he got kicked out first. “I had a fight with 70 guys.” It happened, of course, in a bar.
From there, Mickey volunteered for Vietnam and joined the 101st Airborne Division. He ended up fighting in the fiercest, most crucible-like part of the war, including the Tet Offensive, and became a sergeant at 18 years old.
“I was there when most of the people died in Vietnam. Everybody was just dying left and right,” Mickey says. “I used to stand up in a firefight to try and get hit. There were five guys that didn’t get hit, and I was one of them.” Weighing a scrawny 140 pounds, Mickey joked at the time about how best to survive: “walk sideways.”
He left on December 24, 1969. The military gave him an early out so he didn’t have to spend his last 20 days traveling back after Christmas. He had served exactly two years, eleven months, and seven days, getting home on Christmas Eve, also his mother’s birthday. When he got to the airport there was a brand new ’69 Plymouth GTX waiting for him. His stepfather wouldn’t let him drive it home, even though, in Vietnam, he’d just been “jumping out of helicopters, throwing grenades.”
That night, he, Tommy, and four of their friends went out drinking. At the wheel was their lifelong friend, Jimmy Pepper. Jimmy, inebriated, had already scraped and bumped his car against several others when his vehicle, moving ever onwards, the group still inside, reached the top 20th Street on Seventh Avenue, the highest block in the neighborhood, with a view of the Statue of Liberty across the river below. Mickey says he knew the only way to put an end to the joyride was to force a crash. He told Tommy to brace himself, and he grabbed the wheel.
“We went up the tree, I got outta the car, I said, ‘See you later,’” Mickey remembers. “I walked up the block. My mother said, ‘I heard some noise up there. What was that?’ I said, ‘I dunno, some idiots up there.’”
“That was a toy, me crashing into the thing and hopping out the window.”
The close encounter didn’t stop Mickey from piling girls into his Plymouth and drag racing through the neighborhood. His good luck was fated to continue.
In 1971, after a brief stint in bookkeeping, Mickey got a job as an insulator on the ships at the Red Hook piers, where he worked for the rest of his life, most of it as a supervisor. In 1998, after a career of 30 years, he got asbestos poisoning and retired. He and the other insulators never expected that the material they tore down and put back up would end up harming them. “We used to spit it out when we would eat.”
Mickey, since he ruled the candy store that used to stand on Fifth Avenue and 21st Street in South Slope, had always been a boss. “A working boss,” he clarifies. “Not a guy who sits down. I can’t sit down and let everybody do something for me. I was the first one to help.”
In fact, the veterans who call the post a second home have Mickey to thank for the fact that it’s still standing. Mickey revitalized the place in 2007 when he joined. “It had no money. It had nothing. The guy that was working here robbed it blind.”
Through the canny use of funds from the renters upstairs, alcohol sales, and raffle tickets at events, Mickey was able to pay for a new building.
“I couldn’t see this place from 1948, these people — the women’s auxiliary, [people in their] 70s and 80s coming in here — I couldn’t see this go to waste. They live their life for it. I brought it back to life for them. And they love it.”
Mickey became something of a local celebrity during Hurricane Sandy. The cellar of the post flooded, ruining the boilers, hot water tank, fridge, and boxes of books, records, and memorabilia. His own house on Verona and Van Brunt was destroyed by eleven feet of water, the natural stream outside preventing it from draining. The house had no electricity. Mickey knew he could do something to help the ravaged neighborhood, even while he had no place to live.
“I remember back in war time you need a base camp. That’s how we lived in Vietnam,” Mickey says. The VFW post, intact except for the cellar, made “a perfect base camp.”
So he went to work, buying electric heaters with propane tanks to heat up and dry out the place, and hiring an electrician to fix the wiring. Volunteers came in with their computers and used the post for three months to coordinate the volunteer effort, which involved 500 people a week, signing up to do the work that was needed via a volunteer board directing people to addresses and the work that needed doing.
“I would have done it for anybody,” Mickey says of his spearheading the effort to repair Red Hook. He was given a variety of awards, and was chosen to deliver an honorary pitch at Yankee Stadium. Best of all, he was given a new house. Funded by the organizations Rebuilding Together NYC and Sears Heroes at Home, volunteers filled thirteen sanitation trucks with the walls of his ruined home and everything within them. They then worked for eight months to build a replacement, which Mickey lives in today.
In times of peace as well as turmoil, the post over which Mickey presides serves as a base camp where people who share a certain bond can gather, even if they rarely speak of their experiences. Combat veterans, he says, don’t talk about the war — only “once in a blue moon, if you get a buzz on.”
“What could you really tell somebody? The guys who talk about it really didn’t do too much,” Mickey says. He bowled for 20 years with Vietnam vets before he learned that they were in the war together, bumping into one at the VA hospital. “You don’t join [the VFW] when you get out of the service.”
Younger guys don’t often come to the post, partly because they spend far too many years in combat, Mickey says. “No one’s gonna join the VFW club to remind them of war.”
“Three of us died that went in. Couldn’t make it after. Too much battle,” he says. “Couldn’t make it in civilian life no more.”
Of the effects of wartime trauma, Mickey says, “You got it inside of you, but you don’t show it. I got it, but I ain’t gonna show you I got it. It’s what I do behind closed doors.”
“I gave my uniform away the day I got home,” he says. “You weren’t allowed to be in Vietnam when you got home from Vietnam.”
John Kirbow is one of few young faces to be seen cozying up to the bar at the post. The 33-year-old Atlanta native was an Army reservist for six years before serving in the Army’s Special Operations forces and then as a Defense Department GS-13 in Afghanistan. His path has been untraditional: he picked up multiple languages, including Arabic and Farsi, through self-study and immersion. Understanding how diverse communities operate is his lifelong mission.
John was traveling around Europe during his R&R from Afghanistan when the seed for a project was planted, one that would blossom in Brooklyn. He wanted to build a “Human Empowerment Network” that would link up veterans’ specific skills with the needs of underserved communities. He first came to Red Hook after Hurricane Sandy hit, settling in Brooklyn after two months spent researching in Cusco, Peru.
Though the need for community activism was more alive than ever, he realized it was going to be harder than he thought to get people to listen, and to fork over the funds he needed. Even support for veterans’ organizations was flagging.
“I felt really deeply hurt by that,” John says. “Why do I not have the resources to fight for something like this? I had these resources in a war zone but I don’t have them now.”
Despite the age gap and the institutional changes to the Army since World War II and Vietnam, John believes that veterans are united by a common understanding, a “common repository of shared experience.” He came up with a project that would unite veterans of any age under this shared experience within the context of community activism.
“That’s the challenge: how do you proactively build a veterans’ community in these neighborhoods and use those social networks to proactively identify them?”
Employing military defense analytics and terrain mapping, John is working on creating a needs-and-skills map of the Red Hook neighborhood. Since veterans are often highly trained, the idea is to put their skills to use at home by matching them with their neighborhood’s most pressing needs.
In his view, the military has gotten much better at addressing the problem of post-traumatic stress disorder in recent years, so that it is no longer as stigmatized as it used to be. That doesn’t mean, however, that suicide isn’t a major problem. He hopes his project can help give veterans a sense of purpose, letting them “stay in the fight” even after they return home. It would also be of use to older veterans who are often unaware of the benefits available to them.
“One of the hardest parts for veterans, aside from serious PTSD and the transition from combat, is the lack of honor codes in our society,” John says. “A lot of people are very apathetic. The job market doesn’t seem to appreciate a lot of the skills we have. Most jobs are underpaying. [In the military] we were doing a job that appreciated us for what we could do, that had real meaning, that was challenging.”
John hopes to give displaced veterans both a mission and the resources to carry it out. “We need an incubator for best practices in communities and how veterans can contribute their skills.”
Eventually he hopes that his model could be scaled and replicated across all five boroughs, and then to other communities across the country, developing from an incubator into a business consultancy.
“Part of this is the idea that people in these neighborhoods should have access to their own resources and their own money,” John says. Linked to the skills map would be a “participatory microfund,” a pool of money ready to fund programs as soon as they’re organized.
Already John has set up a financial literacy class with a local self-taught finance expert to teach kids about understanding and managing money. He hopes the teaching will extend to character-building skills like martial arts, as well as practical skills like renovation and construction, with apprenticeship programs for high school kids that would also employ locals and get needed work done in the community.
“The idea is that people like that can speak in the language of the neighborhood.”
The sixth time Vietnam veteran Wally Bazemore tried to get out of Red Hook and found himself back in town, he decided he must have been meant to stay.
“I figured it out, that maybe somebody up there wanted me to be … in the community for a reason. By the sixth time I finally got it, and that’s when I started doing a lot of community work,” he says. “I was shot three times over there” — in Vietnam, he means — “and I know I wasn’t saved because of my beautiful smile.”
Wally came to Red Hook with his family in 1955 at the age of 4, in time for the birth of his younger brother. The family had been living in tenement housing in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Red Hook gave Wally the opportunity to grow up in diversity: while Bed-Stuy was largely African-American, Red Hook was home to Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Puerto Rican communities as well, all of whom became Wally’s friends. “It just opened my eyes to a different world,” he says. “Our little bunch was like the U.N.”
“Red Hook offered us the opportunity to live in something stable. It was a great community,” he says. Red Hook had parks, the waterfront, jobs and good schools to offer Wally, his parents, and his three brothers. “We flourished out here.”
In 1968, Wally and a group of 40 of his friends and neighbors volunteered to go to Vietnam. Wally was 19. Of that group, only two didn’t come back to Red Hook — an unusually low number, Wally remarks. He fought in the 101st Airborne in long-range reconnaissance. He once encountered one of his Red Hook pals in the bush. “It was like running into a piece of home,” he remembers.
Of his three years in the military, Wally spent two years in Vietnam and six months in Okinawa. In Vietnam, he was based just off Highway 1, one of the country’s two thoroughfares. “First day you get off that plane in Da Nang Airport, the heat and the smell of death — that’s the first thing that greets you. That heat and that smell never go away.”
There’s another smell he remembers vividly: that of steak grilling as American contract employees from the Goodrich tire plant barbecued outside, drinking beer and enjoying the Vietnamese countryside while he and his fellow soldiers were “maybe 100 yards away, engaged in firefights.”
Wally also remembers Vietnam as a “beautiful country” with “beautiful people” — the ones that weren’t shooting at him, anyway. “I was still a kid, so I was always drawn to the children. A few of them saved my life on quite a few missions. Just giving me eye contact, letting me know, ‘Don’t go that way, go this way.’ I would give them canned goods and candy,” he says. “They weren’t my enemy. Really those people weren’t my enemy any goddamn way.”
Though he had not only survived Vietnam but earned thirteen medals, including three Purple Hearts, Wally and his fellow soldiers “weren’t exactly greeted like heroes” as they came through the San Francisco airport — a troubling homecoming that Mickey also remembers. “It gave me a different perspective,” he says. “‘Wally, you’re on your own, kid.’”
He describes his return to Red Hook as “coming back to a different war zone.” In three years, the community had undergone dramatic changes. Many of its white residents had left en masse, unnerved by the growing number of African-American and Latino residents, Wally suspects. Of a community of 22,000, only nine or ten thousand were left when he came back. “The place was really like a ghost town.”
“It wasn’t the same place as when I left,” he says. “But I wasn’t the same person when I came back, so why would I expect this place to be the same?”
Red Hook was now a changed community, where “there weren’t but three ways to get out”: drugs, crime, or marriage. He was resolved to be different. “We wanted to get out and serve our country and reap the benefits of being in the military. Get a little college credit, buy a car, get out and have a little money saved,” Wally says of his group of peers.
Wally studied for a year at Brooklyn College, where he played on the football team, then had a daughter and had to leave school to go to work. “I knew I was committed, not only to my family but to this community. I was trying to do well.”
Eventually his friends started to split up and go their separate ways. Some, like Wally, remained. Spurred by the desire to help their community, they protested racial injustice, joined the Black Panthers, and, in 1969, stood outside the U.N. petitioning for the release of Nelson Mandela before the world had heard of him. “It looked like a sleepy community, but we were really progressive.”
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Ignited by images of protesters on TV, Wally and his friends met up at the basketball court at Visitation Hall and decided to join the fight. “The United States was burning. LA, Bed-Stuy, Brownsville. Everyone was tearing up shit,” he recalls of that day.
Instead of taking their anger out on their white friends (“They didn’t shoot Martin Luther King, so why would I have any beef with them?”), the group collected matches, baseball bats, and chains and took to the streets. “We were gonna go around the neighborhood and set Red Hook on fire in protest.”
As soon as they set out, though, they realized it wouldn’t be that easy. Every store they went to with intentions of setting aflame was owned by a proprietor they knew and that knew them. Every car with a window to be smashed was owned by a friend or a friend’s parents.
“We walked around for two hours and we didn’t set nothing on fire, we didn’t tear nothing up,” he says. “We were still angry, but we came to the conclusion that hey, this is our community, this is our home, so why should we destroy it? We should protest, but we shouldn’t destroy it. We loved this place.”
“So we learned a lesson then. There are ways of getting back, but you don’t tear down your home or anybody else’s home. Direct the energy towards something positive.”
When it came to speaking about Vietnam, he and his fellow veterans were silent. “We would never have any discussion about what we seen or what we did over there at that time because it was too fresh in our minds.”
“I didn’t know what post-traumatic stress was. None of us did at this point in time. I only knew that I was always angry,” he says. He suffered night sweats and sometimes woke up to bang on his neighbors’ doors and knock out windows, his mother told him. Nevertheless, with no name for it, he “couldn’t figure it out.”
“I knew what I did over there. I knew what I had seen over there. It was contrary to who I was. I was always a very nice, mild guy. I didn’t come back the same way,” he says. “Once you adapt to that place, you become that place.”
Wally began talking about the war 22 years ago, when he was living in the Bronx, working in maintenance at 26 Federal Plaza, a job he’d gotten through a veterans’ program. He joined a small group of veterans who met at an outreach center to talk about their life and feelings and, eventually, about their experiences in the war. “I knew I wasn’t the only one that was abnormal. We all suffered from trauma, whether it was physical or psychological. So we shared in each other’s miseries to a degree. And tried to heal each other. If you don’t let it out, you know what it could look like.”
Since his early activism, Wally became the first African-American man to be elected to the school board. He’s also a member of the advisory board of the Red Hook Community Justice Center. As a prominent and watchful community member, and he sees younger veterans when they return from places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They tend to drift off in the corner. We don’t need them in the corner. We need them at center mast. They helped build this community. But they’re going through their own crises and there are some of us who have been working on this for years, working on our own issues and still doing things in the community. We need to outreach to our comrades. I think that’s a worthy cause,” says Wally, who has been introducing John to some of the local political players and helping him lay the groundwork for his project.
His own veteran community has stayed strong. They did their part when Hurricane Sandy hit, going around to bus stops with flashlights and walking stranded people home.
“We’re always gonna be combat ready. That’s what Uncle Sam taught us and some of that propaganda we’re gonna keep and utilize to our advantage in this community.”
Wally, however, hasn’t spent a lot of time in the VFW on Van Brunt. He went there four years ago with his DD-214 and tried to become a member—and was told, “Hey, you wouldn’t like it in here.”
“So I told them, look, I’m from Red Hook. So just tell me you’re not gonna be comfortable with a black man in here. You think I’m going to be bringing other black vets in here, which I would. I would bring all kinds of vets. Not only black vets, but any vets. It’s all a fraternity as far as I’m concerned,” Wally says. He points out that there are no female veterans hanging out at the VFW, either.
The attitude, Wally believes, bears a resemblance to that of the “old enclave” he grew up with. “They’re surrounding the wagons,” he says. “They don’t like the new people. They’re biased against everyone.”
I bring up Wally’s story with Mickey, who says he had no recollection of having met Wally and assures me that everyone is subject to the same process when it comes to becoming a member. “It was a different group here,” he says about the VFW in 2010. “He did not talk to me.”
“You gotta come here for a while first. We don’t just let people walk in the door and say, ‘OK, you can become a member,’” Mickey says. “You come in, you bring your proof, we talk about it, and it takes a couple months before you become a member. For everybody. Every human.”
Though Wally says he’s been too busy with his own community projects to square off with the VFW, he hopes that one day all neighborhood veterans will be able to unite in the name of Red Hook. “We’re all neighbors. I label everyone all Red Hookers. We’re tribal. We’re a tribe out here. What we don’t do for ourselves, nobody else is gonna do for us," Wally says.
“That’s how I look at it. We’re all allies.”