Those who served in Iraq, Afghanistan gravitate toward modern organizations
Kate Hoit served eight years in the Army Reserves, including a tour in Iraq, but when she tried to join her local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter, someone asked whether she needed an application for military spouses instead.
Now, Ms. Hoit said, she will never join the VFW or the American Legion. She said the organizations are unwelcoming and out of touch with the needs of post-Sept. 11 veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“I’m not going to go the VFW or the Legion and drink and smoke cigarettes,” she said. “I want to be out in my community.”
Her complaint is echoed by other veterans of the war on terrorism, who see the venerable veterans groups as fraternities of older men from previous wars. The new generation of veterans instead is gravitating toward groups organized around activities such as running or volunteering, and groups that allow nonmilitary members to take part as well.
Younger veterans say the traditional organizations differ in many ways from groups that appeal to them, including the types of advocacy they do and their ways of communication — “snail mail” versus email.
Officials from the Legion and VFW say they are trying to maintain the valuable clout they have built on Capitol Hill and need support to help veterans navigate the bureaucracy of the Department of Veterans Affairs — benefits that the more modern groups don’t provide.
It’s a challenge for the traditional veterans organizations, who agree they need to change to stay relevant.
Post-9/11 veterans say a typical experience at a local post involves walking into a dimly lit hall only to find unwelcoming veterans 30 years older who are having drinks at 10 a.m.
“It’s just the most depressing place,” said Sgt. Matt Pelak, an Army veteran who spent three years in Iraq and still serves in the National Guard. “I can’t imagine a place that is further removed from my generation of veterans.”
Veterans also said such groups deepen the divide between civilian and military worlds because only veterans are allowed to join.
More Iraq and Afghanistan veterans say they are joining groups that allow them to stay active, continue to serve their country and interact with civilians to help reintegrate into society after serving overseas.
Team Rubicon lets veterans serve alongside civilian first responders and “get dirty” when a natural disaster strikes, enabling them to maintain skills they learned in the military, said Sgt. Pelak, director of strategic partnerships at the 4-year-old California-based organization.
Team Red, White and Blue, known by members as Team RWB, focuses on fitness and organizes group runs, bicycle rides, cross fit and yoga classes in regional chapters to help veterans deal in productive ways with stress from deployments or anxiety about the future, said Capt. Brennan Mullaney, the organization’s mid-Atlantic regional director.
Capt. Mullaney, who transitioned to the Army Reserve in 2010, said because it’s important for younger veterans, who have been part of an all-volunteer force, to be able to continue to serve their community and country. He said traditional organizations now consist primarily of Vietnam-era veterans, many of whom were drafted and tend to have “a different view of your service and what your nation owes you.”
Both the VFW and American Legion say Vietnam-era veterans make up the largest portion of their membership. Only about 15 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are eligible to join the VFW have done so.
Membership in the VFW, which marked the 100th anniversary of its founding last month, peaked at 2.1 million in the early 1990s. That is down to about 1.3 million today, and the average age of members is nearly 70. The American Legion claims 2.4 million members, down from 3.1 million two decades ago.
Lynn Rolf, a former Army captain who served in Iraq, couldn’t wait to join the VFW, saying it was an honor to become a member of the same organization as his father and grandfather. Once at the post at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, however, he started to see some behavior he didn’t like.
“They didn’t like the young guys, they didn’t think we knew what we were talking about. It wasn’t very family-friendly,” Mr. Rolf said. “But now it is.”
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