Veteransâ€™ organizations, from VFWs to Legion halls, are losing a war of attrition as their core membership fades.
Some post commanders worry that without an infusion of younger vets, entire halls will close as the warriors of World War II succumb to old age.
Some say the generation gap and busy lifestyles of Gulf and Iraq war vets keep the youngest veterans away, while resentment from Vietnam veterans toward organizations that did not welcome them with open arms keeps those closest to retirement age from signing up.
â€œWeâ€™re getting a few in, but very few,â€ said Howard Crawford, 82, adjutant of the Franklin VFW Post 3402 and a World War II and Korean War veteran. â€œIâ€™m really working on it, too. I talk â€™em all up but I think I got about two members this year.â€
Vietnam veterans have become the backbone of the nation’s largest veterans organizations after decades of avoiding them following service in an unpopular war.
Vietnam vets are joining the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars in greater numbers, in part because the groups lobby for their interests in Washington, says Kirsten Gronbjerg, an Indiana University professor who studies membership organizations.
“They’re older,” Gronbjerg says. “Some of the initial disjunctions they experienced have faded a bit. Disability, pension issues, health care now make a difference to them.”
Larry Kutschma, 58, says he felt belittled by older vets when he returned from fighting in Vietnam’s Central Highlands in the late 1960s â€” they said he hadn’t fought in a “real war.”
Now he’s been a member of the VFW in Racine, Wis., for 10 years. “Through the years our feelings change,” he says. He works on a VFW project sending packages to troops in Iraq.
At 30, Staff Sgt. Jerad Myers is a war veteran, but he’s not quite ready to join the American Legion post or the VFW.
A member of the Indiana National Guard for the past four years and the U.S. Coast Guard for four years before that, Myers returned home to Danville this summer after serving 11 months in Afghanistan.
Like thousands of other Hoosiers who have served in the Middle East, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan since 1990, Myers is part of the newest army of veterans eligible to join at least two service organizations — the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Many of the groups have the same goals: to advocate for veterans’ rights and benefits, ensure veterans know what services are available to them and support active troops and their families. Historically, the groups also have served as social circles, some with bars and restaurants.
But today, those organizations are eager to figure out how to attract a new generation of veterans that includes more women and a greater proportion of National Guard and Reserve troops. Myers, like many of his cohorts and young veterans before him, is not joining — at least not yet.
Organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion may never again see the large pool of potential members that was available after the two world wars and the lengthy, bloody Cold War clashes of Korea and Viet Nam. It goes without saying that the military is different now, operating with a much diminished, all-volunteer force. This is obviously a double-edged sword — it is good that far fewer must suffer the battlefield, but it would also be a shame to lose such fine links to our military past like the veterans’ organizations.
Then again, China, North Korea or somebody else may make all this a moot concern.