OTTUMWA, Iowa — Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 775 in Ottumwa will reach its 75th year this weekend.
And while that’s certainly a milestone to celebrate, it’s also bittersweet, as many of the elder members are passing on, and finding new members is proving difficult.
Local VFW Commander Denny Whitson said Thursday that the organization “isn’t having much luck in recruiting” anyone.
“And we don’t know what the problem is,” he said. “We’ve been involved with the 833rd and the 224th when both left and came back. But only about five have joined the VFW.”
Whitson said the VFW has gone so far as to offer 30 one-year memberships. Only about five people came to the post and visited awhile to see what they liked.
“Three of the five joined,” he said. “So, we haven’t had a lot of success in recruiting.”
Some people have told Whitson that the possible problem is the VFW’s policies. He noted it’s like any other endeavor and not everyone is going to agree.
“What I do is to try to promote the veterans and their welfare,” Whitson said. “The national VFW appeals to everybody, but it’s the Wapello County veterans that we’re taking care of. You can’t make a difference if you don’t get involved and try.”
He noted he’s not the “favorite child” of the state and national organizations and some of their policies.
“I have my opinions, and mine’s different,” Whitson said.
He had supported smoking in the VFW’s club, and national directors removed Whitson from office.
“I protested and national told me I was an embarrassment,” he said. “I think the veterans are right. The inability to smoke in the VFW Club is a big issue with the veterans, like the young ones.”
A National Guard unit that attended Indian Hills College asked Whitson to the speak to the group. The first question was about smoking.
“I told them they can’t smoke inside, that it’s not my plan, but it is the way the state did it,” he said. “I think [the smoking issue] has a lot to do with the low numbers.”
Whitson noted the military gave the soldiers cigarettes in C rations and provided the tobacco in the field.
Another cause of low membership may be the age of the veterans. Currently, there are about 360 members, but not long ago the size was 540.
“We bury 100 per year, counting the Legion and the VFW, and no one is coming in to replace them,” Whitson said. “As for active members, we have less than 20.”
The veterans do have a one huge membership — the Korean War veterans, but many are at the age when they don’t participate.
“It’s hard for a Korean War vet to stand in the sun and do the ceremony or to stand outside in the winter,” Whitson said. “They’re an aging group. Most people in the group are seniors in their 70s and 80s. They don’t participate and they’re life members, so they don’t have to rejoin because their membership has been paid for years.”
Does Whitson have a solution for the situation?
“I’d just like to have anyone who’s interested to come and have hamburger and a cold drink and see what we’re all about,” he said.