The VFW and its Auxiliary have proven that No One
Does More For Veterans. From legislative activism to national veterans
service, VFW continues its commitment to our nation’s veterans.
That commitment began on Sept. 29, 1899, in Columbus, Ohio, when a
group of veterans met to address the urgent needs of their
brothers-in-arms. It’s a tradition that has never wavered.
As you move forward to celebrate VFW Day reflect on the organization’s roots below.
This is a firsthand account of the historic evening of Sept. 29,
1899. It was written by a founding father, James Romanis, for VFW’s
Golden Jubilee in 1949 and later printed in VFW magazine for the 100th
anniversary. He wrote it as though he were an outside observer.
VFW Is Born
By James Romanis
Illustration by Jim Burke
"The world will be kind to you for 10 days,” Col. Teddy Roosevelt
told the famous Rough Riders in a farewell address to his troops on
Sept. 4, 1898. "Everything you do will be all right.
"After that you will be judged by a stricter code, and if you prove
worthless, you will be considered as spoiled by going to war.”
Born in a Tailor Shop
It was just about one year later, on the evening of Sept. 29, when
Francis Dubiel, the proprietor of a modest tailoring store, located at
286 Main Street, Columbus, Ohio, pulled down the shades in his front
door window to let his customers know that his labors for the day were
over. His brow was furrowed with concentration as he stirred the fire in
the pot-bellied stove in the back room.
There was an early autumn chill in the air and Dubiel was expecting
company. One by one, and then in pairs, they drifted in during the next
hour. Finally, 14 men (Simon Heiman, the 14th, arrived late. He had
served with the 4th Ohio Volunteer Infantry on Puerto Rico.) sat about
the room, the glow of the fire through the isinglass windows of the
stove, and the flicker of the lone gas jet on the wall, casting fitful
shadows over their somber faces.
The meeting was no casual get-together of old cronies. The very silence
bespoke the serious matters that brought them into Dubiel’s store. Jim
Putnam, sitting next to a work table covered with unfinished orders,
struck a sulfur match, and puffed with unusual vigor as he applied it to
the bowl of his sturdy briar pipe. John Malloy lit a sweet caporal,
sending smoke-rings curling toward the ceiling.
A tall, youthful man, one leg resting on a work bench underneath the gas
light, rose to his feet to break the silence in the little room. The
war with Spain had ended officially on April 11, 1899. James Romanis had
recently returned with the 17th U.S. Infantry (Regiment) from its
campaign on Cuba.
He looked about the group as though mentally calling the roll of other
17th Infantry vets present. There sat George Kelly and Jim Putnam.
Nearby were Bert Du Rant, John Malloy and Oscar Brookins. Beyond the
stove, Walker Waddington sat on a high stool, while Simon Heiman and
Charles Click shared a wooden box, and David Brown, Andrew Grant, John
Clark and George Beekman stood leaning against the wall under a small
window. Dubiel, the store’s proprietor, stood a little apart, leaning
against a stack of bolted fabrics.
Far from the minds of these men at that moment were the more popular
topics of the day—5-cent cigars, tandem bicycles, the new horseless
carriages, the daring knee-length bathing suits and the threatening Boer
War in South Africa.
"Men,” Romanis said quietly, "you all know why we are here. We’ve talked about this among ourselves for several weeks now.
"Thousands of our comrades are in desperate need. Something’s got to be
done to help them. We’ve waited long enough for the government to act,
but nothing’s happened.”
There was deep conviction, a trace of bitterness in his voice. Daily,
from the window of the pharmacy where he worked, just outside the gate
of Columbus Barracks, Romanis had watched the exodus of discharged
veterans, many of them sick and barely able to carry their few
Confusion and uncertainty were stamped upon their faces. For many of
them, their worldly goods consisted of their discharge papers and the
paltry few pennies of their final pay. Their regiment had gone to Cuba
and then to the Philippines.
Some of them lived in Columbus and they came to the pharmacy where Jim
Romanis worked to buy quinine and other medicines in an effort to cure
the recurring attacks of tropical fever, skin disease and stomach
disorders brought on by eating contaminated food because of a lack of
refrigeration and slow transportation.
Romanis felt a deep compassion for these "forgotten men”—his comrades
who had volunteered and had fought gallantly to win the adulation of a
grateful nation, only to come home and find their brave deeds forgotten,
their jobs gone, their families suffering from hunger and neglect.
"The public is indifferent,” Romanis went on, his voice rising with his
indignation. "People are too busy making money to think of veterans who
can’t support their families because they are sick and unable to work.
Something’s got to be done to help these men.”
A murmur and a nodding of heads greeted his statement. "That kind of
puts it up to us, since no one else seems interested, doesn’t it?”
suggested lanky Jim Putnam. "It certainly does,” Romanis replied, with
the entire group chorusing assent. "And what’s more, it’s up to us also
to see that this country is better prepared if we have to fight another
war, or if our sons are called on to be volunteers.
"We know what happened to a lot of our men because we didn’t have what
was needed to protect us from the enemy. I’m convinced many of our
comrades died because they weren’t properly trained to take care of
themselves in battle.
"I say let’s form an organization, right here and right now, that will
fight for proper treatment for our veterans. But let’s not stop there.
Let’s make it an organization which will demand that our country be
prepared to defend itself against any enemy in the future.”
The little group listened attentively as Romanis went on. "If our
organization is going to amount to anything, we have to be united in
spirit as well as in purpose. We’ve got to think alike on the basis of
our own experiences. If every man who joins our organization is entitled
to wear a campaign badge, he’s sure to be familiar with the exact
conditions we faced during the war.
"We can’t expect the comrade who served in camp here at home to
understand what we went through, nor will we condemn him for that. But
we want to organize an outfit that will speak for the overseas veteran.
When we speak up for national defense or a fair deal for veterans, the
people will know that we speak from personal experience.”
Romanis summed up the outcome of the momentous meeting in these words:
"We’ve agreed to form an organization— one that’s going to live and grow
long after all of us are dead and gone. This society is going to be
active as long as this country of ours is forced to defend itself in
hostile waters and on foreign soil.
"We have the kindliest interest in the men who are not eligible to join
our ranks, and shall do our utmost to protect their interests as well as
the welfare of our overseas comrades. But this will be an organization
of men who have survived the type of service that earns campaign medal
recognition from the government of the United States.
"We pledge ourselves to work together for the benefit of our country,
and for all men who are required to serve in our armed forces at home
and beyond the boundaries of the United States in time of war.”
Choosing a Name
As Romanis concluded his remarks, Walker Waddington spoke up: "We’ve got
an organization, now what about a name?” Several from the group offered
suggestions, but none seemed to rightly describe the newborn society.
Finally, Bert Du Rant got to his feet. "I think I’ve got it,” he said.
"What about American Veterans of Foreign Service?”
"Sounds good to me,” Jim Putnam and George Kelly chorused in unison.
"Me, too,” added Oscar Brookins. It was voted on with no dissents, and
the name became official. Thus it was under this name that a new
veterans group was chartered by the state of Ohio on Oct. 11, 1899.
James Romanis was the first adjutant of the Columbus, Ohio-based
American Veterans of Foreign Service and later commander-in-chief. He
died Dec. 7, 1954 at age 76.