Veterans groups fight enrollment decline

  • Feb 17, 2016

As members of veterans organizations, those who have served in the armed forces can be seen at the funerals of fellow veterans where they quietly stand guard, waiting to perform a 30-second military rite. They travel to local schools on Veterans Day, and go cemetery-to-cemetery giving speeches to crowds on Memorial Day with paper poppies pinned to their shirts.

The color guards often are seen at sporting events or marching proudly down the main streets of America during summer parades, carrying the flags of their state, their fraternal organization and their country.

Many local VFW and American Legion halls are open for fish fry Fridays, and put on steak feeds once a month.

The American Legion sponsors high school students to go to Badger Boys State, a week-long seminar about the workings of government.

Veterans groups often are visible in the community as they work to raise funds not just for their own organizations, but for local food pantries, Veterans Administration hospitals and other local community services.

But look closely at that color guard marching down the street or at the cemetery at the ready to perform military rites. Most, if not all, of its participants likely are at least 60 years old.

Declining membership

Membership in the VFW and American Legion is decreasing as the organizations’ most numerous demographic — those of World War II — passes away.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars is the oldest of veterans fraternal groups, formed by soldiers of the Spanish American War in 1899, becoming known as the VFW in 1913.

Membership in the VFW is open to those who have received a campaign medal for overseas service; have served 30 consecutive or 60 non-consecutive days in Korea; or have ever received hostile fire or imminent danger pay.

VFW membership has dropped with the losses among the aging WWII veteran population. As of 2014, the number of living WWII veterans in the U.S. dropped below 1 million, with death rates of about 430 a day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

With VFW national membership at 1.3 million — down from its 1992 peak of 2.1 million — the average age among VFW members is 70.

“We have 180 members and six or seven WWII guys left,” said Prairie du Sac Lachmund-Cramer VFW Post 7694 commander and Vietnam War veteran Bart Mauch. “Our honor guard does military rites and we did 23 funerals last year. Since 1995, we’ve done 312 funeral military rites.”

Most of the members of the Prairie du Sac VFW are Vietnam War-era vets. The post’s elderly veterans who pass away are not being replaced by younger servicemen and women.

Vietnam War veteran Tom Schuster lives in Madison, but belongs to the Sauk Prairie VFW because that’s his hometown.

“It’s really hard to communicate with younger guys because they just don’t want anything to do with joining,” Schuster said.

Different era

Schuster has been a VFW member for 10 years, a relatively short time compared with many members. He said that has more to do with coming home to a national attitude that showed no respect to Vietnam War vets in the early 1970s. He said he felt the same attitude with VFW groups 40 years ago.

“When I got out of the service, I went into Madison to join the VFW and they didn’t want us because we were Vietnam,” Schuster said. “They did not think Vietnam veterans fought a war.”

The American Legion, which was was created by an act of Congress in 1919 and spearheaded the original GI Bill for veterans returning from World War II in the 1940s, has seen its national membership decrease to 2.4 million, down from 2.7 million a decade ago and 3.1 million 20 years ago.

Eligibility for the American Legion is less stringent than for VFW members. It’s open to all war-time veterans whether they served in combat or not.

Dale Oatman, state commander for the American Legion based in Portage, also likened recruitment difficulties with younger members to the distancing and alienation Vietnam War veterans felt in the ‘70s from many Americans.

“Forty years later Vietnam vets have started coming on board,” Oatman said. “They are the largest group out there right now. If that will happen with the new generation, I don’t know.”

The Burton-Koppang American Legion Post in Mauston has the largest membership in Juneau County with 175 veterans.

Post Adjutant Jim Bittick said most members are in their 60s and 70s.

“Our pool of prospective members is shrinking,” Bittick said. “You have to be a vet when America was at war. That number is shrinking. Less than one percent of the population goes into the military now.”

Bittick pointed out that most fraternal organizations such as the Lions Club, Kiwanis and other groups also struggle to attract younger members.

“People in their 40s and younger don’t seem to be interested,” he said.

Gary Thompson, vice commander of the Harold Larkin Memorial American Legion in Wisconsin Dells and a Vietnam War veteran, said the post has few young members.

“We can’t figure out why. We’re just not getting them,” he said. “A lot of it is job related for them, or they don’t want to get involved in military politics.”

The Dells-based Legion post has approximately 200 members, according to Ed Fox, chaplain and long-time member, and the VFW has approximately 50 members.

Fox estimates the Legion post has lost a third of its members over the past two decades, but approximately 80 percent of those losses were to deaths.

“There have been an awful lot of deaths the past 20 years,” Fox said, noting that was inevitable considering the aging of the World War II generation.

The advancing age of the majority of active veteran members also is the case at the Baraboo American Legion.

“Its like going to the geriatric ward at our meetings,” said Baraboo Legion public information officer Tom Gaukel. “There’s usually about 30 people there, and of the 30, there may be two that are less than 65 or 70 years old.”

Smaller military

A primary reason for dwindling membership in veterans organizations is the military employs fewer people than in the past.

According to figures obtained from the U.S. Department of Defense, in December 2015 there were 1.3 million active military personnel in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps combined, compared to more than 16 million during WWII and 8.7 million during the Vietnam War.

“Weapons technology means less need for the military personnel,” Oatman said. “It doesn’t take as much support to operate an aircraft. The Stealth aircraft has fewer on its crew. Drones are not manned. Some satellites are controlled from within the U.S.”

The ability of veterans groups to recruit also was hampered by the Patriot Act, enacted by Congress in 2001 after the attacks on 9/11. The Act ended the Department of Veterans Affairs’ practice of publishing lists of returning veterans.

Left behind

Oatman said recruiting new members has been “a tough nut to crack.”

The age of members has made the organizations slow to keep up with advancing technology frequently used by younger generations. Some local commanders admit it’s only been in the last three or four years that their post has created a website or a Facebook page, if they have one at all.

Reedsburg Thurber-Greenwood VFW member and Vietnam War veteran Art Krolikowski said his post has tried recruitment activities such as hosting Packers Days or family events to attract the younger servicemen and women.

“What happens is they come, but don’t come back,” Krolikowski said. “They’re busier than heck. Their kids may be in sports and both people in the household are working. We find a lot of them aren’t coming back until they’ve been out of the service 15 years or so.”

“National American Legion has come up with a new marketing commission, in part, so they can address membership,” Oatman said. “We’d certainly like to get more veterans on board.”

Important work

Oatman said younger veterans should consider the work that American Legion members do around the state for veterans. He said their efforts include addressing economic and health issues while working to improve benefits and quality of life.

On Feb. 4, American Legion state leaders testified before a State Assembly committee about proposed legislation that would eliminate the requirement that each of the state’s 72 counties maintain a veterans service officer to assist veterans with their VA benefits.

“We’d like younger veterans to see what’s going on and get on board with the American Legion because we’re fighting for our cause,” Oatman said.

American Legion State Adjutant David Kurtz said advocacy work is a big reason younger veterans should participate in their local American Legion or VFW.

“The things we’re engaged in at the state Capitol for legislative issues effect the delivery of services,” Kurtz said. “We are protecting and defending the benefits veterans have earned. We’re representing their best interests every day.”

Kurtz said the organization would like to get younger veterans involved in Camp American Legion near Rhinelander. The camp is a free rehabilitation camp offered to any discharged veteran with a physical or psychological illness, injury or disability, or active duty military person who has returned home within the last nine months and any survivor family members who have lost a service member in the last year.

“We have veterans and their spouses and children who come to the camp needing a degree of reintegration for someone gone for six months or a year so they can re-establish relationships,” Kurtz said. “We have entire family support groups and peer counseling for post traumatic stress issues that’s not a clinical setting, but has trained peer counselors.”

Other responsibilities

At 43 years old, Nick Westley is among the youngest members of Mauston’s American Legion. He served in the U.S. Navy on a fast tech submarine at Pearl Harbor as a nuclear machinist.

He is a bartender at the post on the weekends, the post’s finance officer and manages the bar and liquor purchases.

But this year he’s stepping down from those positions to start his own insurance business, and is a single father of two teenage daughters.

“It’s one thing if you’re retired,” Westley said. “My generation tends to say, ‘I don’t have that luxury.’ I take kids to school and work full time and then try to fulfill my civic obligations.”

He said he enjoys his time with older vets at the Legion, but said there is a different perspective among today’s soldiers.

“We didn’t all join the military for patriotic or noble causes,” Westley said. “Some of the people in today’s modern military join for school benefits. Some say, ‘I’m looking at college and it’s not a fit for me. I think I’ll join the service then go to school.’ Some make the military a career.”

Westley has no problem telling younger folks the benefits of joining up, if for no other reason than connecting with other servicemen to share experiences and friendship.

“The newer generations tend to say, ‘What’s in it for me?’” Westley said. “So you have to put your sales hat on.”

Westley said the benefits can be as basic as camaraderie or as important as an opportunity for business networking.

Family focus

Jason Lane is 42 and is the service officer for the Baraboo American Legion.

He said the void in younger membership is something he has been “keenly aware of,” and said it reflects changes in modern society.

“The family cultural dynamic has changed in the last 30 years,” Lane said. “The men from the WWII era got involved in a Legion right away and stayed members until they passed away. People my age are more family-centric and seem to have so much more to do.”

But he said even with a large age differential there’s still a payoff.

“It’s about socializing and connecting with people who may have gone through some of the same traumatic issues in a different time period, and who you have something in common with,” Lane said.

Lane, who helped develop the Baraboo Legion’s website and social media presence, also said it’s important for the organizations to accept change.

“Just breaking through the ‘we’ve done it this way for years, so let’s just keep dong it that way’ idea,” Lane said. “Guys may be timid to reach out to families because they’ve always done things the same way. Start focusing more on the family dynamic instead of the just the veteran.”

Kevin Krohn of Prairie du Sac is a member of the Prairie du Sac VFW. He recently was promoted to store manager at Ace Hardware in Sauk City. He’s a 47-year-old father of three kids who are heavily involved in sports at school.

Since his promotion he has to work more evenings and said he misses the meetings at the VFW hall.

“It’s the camaraderie,” Krohn said. “We have a substantial amount of that in the service. That’s kind of the way those guys are. They are fun guys to be around. I’d go down there when they were playing cribbage, and I’m not of the cribbage age, but I had fun. If I knew the answer of how to get the younger guys involved, I’d do it. I think it’s just a matter of time. We have to wait.”

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