TO THE LAST MAN
By ANDREW MCGINN
The Navy taught James Wasson how to sew.
Over the course of a 20-year military career, Wasson put the skill to good use, sewing parachutes and other gear for the naval air crews bound for Libya, Iraq, Somalia and the Balkans.
Still, it’s probably safe to say he never anticipated the day when he’d be sewing $6 cloth masks during a pandemic as a way to keep his roof from caving in.
Commander of Jefferson’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9599, Wasson has been furiously raising a “dollar here, dollar there” to replace the post’s leaky roof, a perennial problem that has come home to roost on his watch as commander.
“Too many veterans have put too much into this,” Wasson explained recently, garbage cans and coolers strategically positioned to catch rainwater, “for it to go to waste under my watch.”
But it’s a long way to $38,000 — the cost of a new roof for the building at 109 N. Chestnut St. — selling $6 masks and serving near-weekly curbside dinners of beef and noodles and hot beef sundaes for freewill donations.
If there’s a cavalry waiting to charge in, they’re taking their time.
“I’ve been screaming at the top of my lungs, ‘Help, help, help,’” Wasson said. “If the roof caves in, this building is done.”
The post will hold a bake sale from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, with a table on the sidewalk out front, to generate donations.
Earlier in the year, Wasson sent a letter explaining their situation — that the post’s roof won’t withstand another winter and spring — to more than 40 local businesses hoping to elicit support. Four responded, he said.
Of course, the timing couldn’t be worse.
The ongoing pandemic has dealt an economic blow to businesses and individuals alike. But a leaky roof waits for no one.
“We’ve got more leaks in the building than we can deal with,” Wasson said.
Not long ago, a robust VFW post in Jefferson, along with active American Legion posts, were seen as key to Greene County’s effort in attracting new residents. The county in 2014 snagged the state of Iowa’s very first Home Base Iowa designation, heralding the community as a veteran-friendly place to live.
And as the military started drawing down from years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was hoped that a package of financial incentives might entice a bevy of veterans to start their lives anew in rural Iowa.
But six years later, membership in Post 9599 is going in the opposite direction, according to Wasson, from 129 members a few years ago to 101 members.
“We’re here for veterans,” Wasson said, “but they’re just not moving into the community.”
The Post 9599 building had its problems even before then-Gov. Terry Branstad came to town to designate Greene County as the pilot community in his Home Base Iowa program.
Activities were suspended for a time following discovery of a mold problem in 2013. The first in a series of roof patches enabled the building to reopen in late 2014, and members were proud to show off a new kitchen, new bathrooms, new carpet, new lighting and fresh paint.
The patches — atop four layers of roof — are no longer enough to keep water at bay.
“It’s so bad it’s got to come off,” Wasson said of the building’s roof.
Mold has returned. Ceiling tiles get soggy to the point of collapse.
Some of that new lighting — acquired through a grant from Home Depot — has shorted out.
“This building is ready to fall in,” said longtime member Duane Mosher, a veteran of Vietnam and the first Gulf War. “I don’t know if the city realizes all this.”
In his third year as commander, Wasson has seemingly fought one battle after another, from a gas leak two years ago to a break-in at the building earlier this year. Lax paperwork between 2011 and 2015 caused Post 9599 to lose its federal nonprofit status, said Wasson, who had to go back through waterlogged paper records to make things right with the IRS. The post regained its nonprofit status this past May, retroactive to January, and Wasson has since created an electronic ledger.
The front of the building is rotting.
“We’re barely surviving,” he said. “We’ve done what we can do.”
But despite taking on more and more water, the retired sailor isn’t ready to abandon ship.
“Veterans need a place to go,” he said.
Some veterans, he said, feel they can only open up to other veterans.
“A lot of them,” Wasson explained, “won’t see a psychologist.”