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Turf war drags on between local VFW, American Legion

Members of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars are once again asking Merced County leaders to intervene to help them find their own meeting space.

They took their concerns to officials on Tuesday, claiming that they have been without a home since the Department of Public Works declared their former spot, called “the Hut,” unusable due to violating building codes. According to VFW members, the Hut – an old structure which sits on the premises of the Veterans Memorial Building on Main Street – had been their meeting place since 1931.

The Memorial Building was originally built with funds gathered by the American Legion, a separate group for service members, but it is now owned by the County and leased to the Legion, which manages the building’s meeting spaces. The agreement was for the VFW to use space in the Memorial Building to meet, but members say they want a place that more resembles the home they used to have.

“[The Hut] was a place for us. Our signs were there, our pictures were there, our flags were there,” said Eli Painted Crow, a veteran who saw combat driving diesel trucks in convoys during the Iraq War.

“It’s broken up the community of war veterans,” she said.

The Legion disputes that, as do the Board of Supervisors, who say that the VFW remains free to use the building for meetings. The conflict has even held up the County’s renewal of the lease for the Memorial Building itself. Supervisors passed a provisional lease at a meeting last November, with the expectation that both sides would agree on a finalized version next month.

“I’m not really sure what the issue is,” said Gene Hamil, finance officer for Legion Post 83 and a former commander. “They’ve been welcome to meet. They know they’re welcome.”

“They are on our schedule for the whole year,” he said. “We even reached out and told them we are willing to work with them and help them.”

While both the VFW and American Legion are organizations that serve veterans, they have different requirements for entry. The VFW is open only to veterans who served in combat, while the Legion is open to anyone who has served in the military.

Part of the problem is that individual members in both groups have clashed over the years. Conflict in the past has boiled up and is now making it harder for both sides to come to an agreement.

“The inner politics you guys have going on there, this Board can’t solve that,” Supervisor Daron McDaniel told VFW members in a meeting last November.

“To see the infighting is very upsetting,” said Supervisor Josh Pedrozo, who has been involved in discussions with the Legion and the VFW. “When I got involved in this, I met with both sides and I said that we have to figure something out here.”

Pedrozo has only been on the Board since 2021, so much of the infighting predates him. When he asked his predecessors for advice on how to help the situation, he said the response was “Good luck.”

For some in the VFW, however, an acknowledgement of some of the hurtful things that might have been said in the past would go a long way.

“If you’ve experienced hostility that hasn’t been taken care of, it just festers over the years,” said Painted Crow. “There has to be some acknowledgement that this stuff really happened to these guys.”

“There is a belonging issue here. Maybe people can’t understand that, but I do as a veteran,” she said.

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