FORT SMITH -- A local chapter of a national organization for veterans will celebrate a new, healthier life this week.
The Jim Taylor Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8845 will hold a re-opening event at 1 p.m. Monday. This comes in the wake of its members voting to ban smoking in the building July 9. Part of this decision involved closing the post Saturday and today for a deep cleaning.
Leroy Farmer, post commander, said the post's leadership believes it's more important to take care of its veterans' well-being than cater to unhealthy habits that can also negatively affect others, such as smoking and the second-hand smoke .
Farmer said the smoking ban will also make the post a more family friendly environment. He noted the post, which has a bar, couldn't allow anyone younger than 21 to enter due to its status as a smoking facility under state law. This meant veterans with children or teenagers couldn't enjoy the benefits of the post with their families.
"What we wanted to do is go non-smoking so that when we have a food service, like we cook a meal or we have a party, you can actually invite the children and minors to be in the facility and enjoy the family aspect of the VFW," Farmer said.
Farmer hopes opening the post as a non-smoking venue Monday will increase the amount of activities there, particularly those which are family oriented.
Holly Kwiecinsky , a Navy veteran and member of the post with two daughters, called the post's move to non-smoking a "wonderful push forward into the future."
"Honestly, it's going to be a lot more pleasant to come in here for events, not have to leave and smell like smoke," Kwiecinsky said.
Farmer also believes the lack of smoking there will help entice more veterans, as well as younger ones, to become members of the post as older members, such of those who served during the Vietnam War, continue to get older. As of Wednesday, the post already gained seven new members since July 1 for a total of 178 on record, something Farmer partly attributed to its new non-smoking policy.
Phillip Hodges, the post's junior vice commander, remarked the younger generation of veterans isn't as inclined to smoke compared to older generations.
Jeffrey Byrd, VFW commander for Arkansas, said Friday a few of the organization's other posts in the state decided to ban smoking before the Fort Smith post. This includes two in the last two years, one in Searcy and another in Jonesboro.
However, Byrd declined to comment on whether he believed more of the 76 VFW posts in Arkansas would move to do the same. He said such decisions are up to the members of the posts, rather than the state or national level of the organization.
Many veterans smoked or otherwise used tobacco products while they served in the military, where the practice has a long history, according to a news release from the Fort Smith post. Farmer, whose 13-year tenure in the Army included time in Iraq and other places, said food rations during the Vietnam War included five cigarettes.
Hodges, who spent 12 years in the Arkansas Army National Guard, said one of his responsibilities while serving in Iraq was helping clear transportation routes of explosives so they could be travelled safely. He recalled how people who never smoked up to that point started doing so as a way to deal with the adrenaline and other stressors with the job compared to other remedies such as medicine, something they picked up from those who were already smoking.
Farmer said this weekend's cleaning would include cleaning all the decorations on the walls of the post, which will be re-painted, to ensure the facility doesn't smell like cigarette smoke when it opens. Monday's celebration will feature appearances by political dignitaries, including Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin.
The post discussed the smoking issue for two to three months before deciding to do away with it, according to Farmer.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars has about 10,000 members in Arkansas.
Source: Jeffrey Byrd, state commander for the Veterans of Foreign Wars