SAN ANTONIO, Texas - It's early on a Thursday night at VFW Post No. 76, and the former door gunner sits in the dimness of the lounge sipping his Miller Lite.
Across the room, obscured by a thin haze of cigarette smoke, two men at the long wooden bar watch a basketball game. A thin, gray-haired ex-Marine sniper ponders the jukebox choices before choosing Toby Keith.
"See how peaceful it is here," says Domingo Vasquez, 58, who spent 18 months of his youth as a Huey helicopter door gunner above Vietnam's Central Highlands. "There's no fights, no trouble."
For thousands of veterans, the VFW hall is a place of easy refuge, of shared experiences of being in harm's way in a faraway place. But time is catching up with the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
World War II veterans, who make up about half the VFW's national membership, are dying at a rate of 1,100 a day. Nationally, there are 1.7 million VFW members, down from 2.1 million in 1992. In Texas, membership has fallen to 89,273 from 121,000 in 1993.
And newer veterans from the gulf wars show little interest in joining, partly because they're busy building lives and careers, officials say. At Post 76, there are none.
"We've been aware for some time that we have to attract the younger veterans and create a greater awareness for all Americans about what the Veterans of Foreign Wars is," said Jerry Newberry, national VFW spokesman.
Part of that effort has translated into the VFW programs that support National Guard, reserve and active-duty military personnel and their families.
"They know we're fighting for them. But as people get out of the military, they're pretty busy with the transition to civilian life, building new careers and raising families," Newberry said. "Once they're more established, they have time to give us their time. It's always been that way for the VFW, and it's that way today."
The VFW was formed in 1914 out of two groups of Spanish-American War veterans that had been formed 15 years earlier to secure benefits for veterans. In San Antonio, Post No. 76 started in 1917, making it the oldest VFW post in Texas.
The VFW has always been open only to those veterans who had served honorably in a war zone. After War II, when the membership swelled to more than 3 million, the VFW became the most powerful lobbying group for veterans.
As it has from the beginning, the VFW continues to lobby for pay raises for active-duty soldiers and improved funding for veterans' benefits and education. The VFW was instrumental in raising funds for the World War II memorial dedicated last May in Washington.
In Texas, VFW members have provided $3 million for community service, such as telephone cards for troops in Iraq and emergency assistance funds for soldiers and their families.
"We take great pride in the services we provide both to veterans and to the communities in which we live," said Ray Grona, assistant state adjutant for the VFW's Department of Texas. "To continue that work, we have to show these younger vets that there's a purpose here, we're not just drinking beer and trading war stories."
At Post No. 76, another Vietnam veteran, Danny Estrello, the post steward, echoes the sentiment. He emphasizes the community service projects at the post.
The rummage sales and barbecues help raise money for veterans issues, but more help is needed.
"When we came back from Vietnam, a lot of the old World War II vets didn't want us around. We can't do that," Estrello said. "We have to show them it's someplace where they can do some good and still bring their families and have a good time."
Post No. 76 is one of the best-kept secrets of the community.
Surrounded by a string of machine shops and commercial buildings, the post is in a three-story 19th-century mansion along an undeveloped bend of the San Antonio River just north of downtown.
"You look around and about 60 percent of the people here are not members and not even veterans," Estrello said. "They don't just sit around and drink. They volunteer for our projects. They pitch right in. Frankly, we couldn't exist without the non-members. They're the key to our survival."
Robert Ramirez, 57, sits on the porch and greets each passer-by by name. A Vietnam veteran, like most of the members here, he didn't join the VFW until 1995.
Like the post's other 210 members, Ramirez is proud of belonging to the state's oldest VFW post.
"Everyone thinks we're just a bunch of old guys, but we're a proud bunch," he said. "And the kids serving in Iraq know what it means to be proud too. And we can reach them."