A generational split is weakening the groups that have won government benefits for veterans and served as social pillars in thousands of communities.
The nation’s the two biggest veterans groups, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, have been shrinking for more than 20 years. They've lost more than a million members and thousands of posts, as those who served during World War II, Korea, and Vietnam died and weren’t replaced by younger veterans.
They are struggling to attract the vets of today’s wars– the young men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the growing question on this Veteran’s Day is whether these longtime forces in American culture can stay relevant.
“We need the younger blood, there’s no doubt, to carry on the fight,” said Fred Iannone of Legion Post 87 in High Point, N.C.
He’s post commander, which puts him on the front lines of the fight to recruit younger veterans.
“I tell them the American Legion was the organization that got the VA. The American Legion is the one that got you the right to go to the VA to get benefits,” he said.
But that’s usually not enough to persuade them.
Bars are part of a generational divide
Several things are fueling the generational gulf. Young vets may not have much spare time as they start civilian careers and families. And the traditional groups face competition from a host of new veterans organizations, often aimed at niches like physical fitness or raising awareness about military suicide.
To many younger vets, posts seem like little more than smoke-filled bars where old-timers swap war stories while hiding from their wives. The bars - which veterans groups call canteens - can be important social hubs for members, and they help keep some posts afloat financially.
But potential recruits often consider the bars a turn-off, and the subject of whether posts should serve alcohol generates internal debate within the VFW and Legion.
“It’s said that many American Legion posts have canteens or bars, and some bars have American Legion posts,” said Rick Sessa, Commander of Post 543 in Southport, N.C.
Sessa’s post doesn’t have a canteen and meets at a community center, which he says helps attract a demographic of “energetic people who are here to serve.”
Fred Iannone, the VFW post commander in High Point, was in its canteen on a recent night enjoying a beer. The crowd was lively, despite the fact that some, including Iannone, were approaching 70 years old.
Tim Gulledge, who served in the early 1990s, walked over with a beer.
He said the canteen is a great thing for many members, but it’s inaccurate to think it’s all that the post is about.
“Sometimes I’ll approach someone and say why aren’t you a member of the American Legion, and they’re say well, I don’t drink,” he said. “Well, that’s a misconception. We have a club room here, and you can come here and enjoy it at reasonable price, but we have our general meeting and have a whole lot of members who don’t drink.”
National membership in the veterans groups suffered in the years right after the Vietnam War, but eventually rebounded as Vietnam vets got older. Many who refrained from joining the groups immediately after the war eventually became members years later.
Legion and VFW leaders and members say they expect another membership surges when today’s young vets have fewer family and work obligations – and when they mentally move past the frequent deployments of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“This is an adjustment period for many of them, and they’re really adjusting with their families, so we’re trying to get our posts to gear towards a more family-type atmosphere, rather than just a single veterans atmosphere,” said Frank Stancil, the state adjutant for the North Carolina American Legion.
“It’s not that complicated, but these veterans have been away from home,” Stancil said. “They might have been deployed two or three times. That’s a lot of time away, so they don’t want to come back and be involved in something that keeps them away from the family."
“So we’re trying to get (the posts) to be more family oriented,” he said. “But it’s a challenge.”
American Legion and VFW posts can be fiercely independent. Some have resisted suggestions to become more family-friendly and put less emphasis on their bar scene. Others, as their membership dwindled, chose to die rather than merge with another nearby post.
A local staple; a political powerhouse
Much is at stake for communities. And for veterans.
With things like scholarships, patriotic parades, counseling and advocacy for veterans, and the Legion’s baseball leagues, the posts have long been staples in thousands of American communities.
Meanwhile, the groups have been a major political power in Washington, D.C.
The Legion and VFW used their political muscle to win iconic benefits for former troops, including the G.I .Bill, which helped fuel national prosperity after World War II by paying for millions of veterans to attend college and trade school. The groups also urged Congress to create the Veterans Administration, which serves former service members with the nation’s largest healthcare system.
On a recent day in Washington, D.C., Raymond Kelley and Carlos Fuentes stepped across the street from the VFW’s office and entered the Dirksen Senate Office Building.
Kelley heads the VFW’s policy-making and lobbying efforts in Washington, and Fuentes is its expert on health care issues.
They were headed for the office of Vermont Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, to meet with Sanders’ staff expert on veterans and military affairs, Steve Robertson. Sanders is on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
They wanted to share data from a survey of their members on the VA Choice program, which attempts to reduce wait times for medical care by letting veterans visit private health facilities instead of VA clinics.
“We read a lot of legislation, we read a lot of reports that come out, and as we do that, we engage with Congress,” Kelley said. “We have a grassroots advocacy program that asks our members to engage with those members back home. So even if we aren’t as large, we’ll still have an impact on policy moving forward.”
The visit to Sanders’ office was the Hollywood version of what veterans groups do in Washington. More often, Kelley said, his staff is in the office, crunching survey results, honing positions, and taking calls from congressional staffers. Because VFW and Legion members are vast sources of data on things like health care and VA benefits, Kelley says his staff is less likely to sell ideas than help lawmakers understand issues.
That’s an enviable position for an advocacy group, and they have the size and resources to to back it up. At least for now.
To grow, posts get younger, more diverse
To attract enough members to keep that kind of clout, Legion and VFW leaders are looking among the ranks of women veterans.
The Southport post on North Carolina’s fast-growing southeastern coastline has been startlingly successful. It’s that rare beast — a new post — and in its three years of existence has attracted 150 members.
It enjoys a potent combination: energetic leaders and a local area with a hefty influx of retirees.
Sessa, the post commander, is trying to bring in more young vets and women. While the number of female troops and veterans has risen rapidly, just three women belong to Sessa’s post.
This fall, the post invited Patricia Harris, North Carolina’s first female American Legion commander, to present a program aimed at both attracting women and persuading the men that’s important.
“We needed to show our community that this American Legion post is all inclusive and our women veterans mean as much to us as any other veteran,” Sessa said.
Another post that’s trying to change is VFW Post 8469 in Fairfax, Va.
There, on a warm night just before Halloween, 29-year-old Commander Walter Sweeney stood near a picnic table outside the post, which is in an older two-story house that would look at home in Norman Rockwell painting. Except for the pair of old artillery pieces out front.
A group of kids was at the table carving jack-o-lanterns. It was the first time the post had hosted a pumpkin carving party, said Sweeney, who fought with the Marines in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.
“The idea behind this event is to bring out some of the veterans with families, some of our members with families, and potentially some community members who are eligible to be members of the post but haven’t heard of us,” Sweeney said.
More than half of the post’s 11-member leadership team are Afghan and Iraq veterans. The area has an unusually high density of younger veterans, and Sweeney says it wants to be a place where they feel at home.
One of the things he did as a junior official of the post was redesign the post website. In an era when many Legion and VFW posts don’t have websites at all, Post 8469 maintains a colorful site and an active Facebook page.
If Post 8469 has any lesson to offer other posts, Sweeney said, it’s not to do exactly what his post is doing, with pumpkin carvings or Facebook pages. But to use the energy they have to think about what might work for them.
And if they can lure younger veterans, Sweeney said they need to try.
“I’m going to risk getting in trouble with higher-up VFW and say that right now, we should have been where we are today 10 years ago, in the way that we reach out to younger veterans and way that we organize online media and the way we do events like this,” he said, nodding at the kids and pumpkins.
“We can’t just sit here and wait for people to walk in and say ‘Hey, we heard about the VFW and we want to be a member.’ We have to go out and get ‘em.”
This story is a part of the American Homefront Project — a joint effort of KPCC, KUOW and WUNC — reporting on American military life and veterans. It is Part 2 of a three-part series on America's veterans organizations. You can find Part 1 here, and Part 3 here.