Veterans groups have trouble signing up younger members
The Sacramento Bee
When they came home from serving their country, huge numbers of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II joined veterans organizations: the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars, maybe, or various groups dedicated to keeping members of a particular service branch or division in touch with one another.
For Dan Sokol and Harold Arkoff – both of whom are VFW members as well as national officers of the 41st Infantry Division Association – remembering their long-ago military service is a key part of their lives. The infantry association's 63rd annual reunion takes place in Sacramento starting Thursday.
"I think it's important to us," said Arkoff, 87, a retired broadcaster who lives in Calabasas. "When we look back, if we did anything for humanity, serving in World War II is what we did."
Some of the wars in the decades since don't have the same hold on the American consciousness. Some have, as Arkoff put it, been more controversial: less widely accepted by the public at home, late to become a source of pride for those who fought.
The resulting isolation and trauma are in direct conflict with the dynamic of organizations celebrating veterans' service.
And that's affected membership numbers. With those numbers inevitably dropping as the World War II cohort disappears – this generation of citizen-soldiers, in which everyone in their age group was called to serve – veterans organizations are finding limited success at attracting younger replacements.
Many younger service members, who include the 2.4 million men and women who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past 11 years, simply have little interest.
"I know only one guy who served in Iraq and joined the VFW back home," said Josh Klein, 29, a West Sacramento security expert who served with the Army in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. "Maybe we don't have the same connection."
Or maybe established veterans organizations need an image change.
Membership in the American Legion peaked at 3.3 million in 1946 and has dropped to 2.3 million today, while VFW membership has fallen to 1.5 million from a high of 2.2 million two decades ago. Thousands of American Legion and VFW posts, long a mainstay of life in many communities, have closed around the nation.
The average age of a VFW member today is 61.
"Younger veterans don't want to join an organization with a bunch of older guys," said Bob Patrick, a retired military officer who is director of the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project.
"But the central point with military service is that for anybody who serves, it's a formative part of your life. Maybe when you recognize that, you want to reassociate yourself with other people who served."
Younger vets may try to move on
For now, established veterans groups that have prided themselves on a legacy of advocating for their members – the VFW, for example, played a vital role in the passage and updating of the GI Bill – find themselves struggling for relevancy with a new generation of returning warriors.
Just as the nation's 2.7 million Vietnam veterans found that the men and women who served in previous wars weren't conversant in the side effects of Agent Orange exposure, so do younger returning veterans find that the reverberations of traumatic brain disorder – the signature wound of the Iraq war – aren't a priority for older veterans.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association, founded in 2004, advocates specifically for younger veterans and their needs.
For many younger veterans, the issue is mainly one of timing. They're in their 20s and 30s. Like their counterparts in the late 1940s, today's returning vets are trying to move forward with their lives: attending college, reconnecting with spouses and families and trying to make a living.
"We don't have time to sit in three meetings every month," said Jonathan Gehweiler, 29, who served in Iraq with the California National Guard.
Rather than hanging out on bar stools to drink with their buddies and reminisce, younger veterans prefer family-friendly amenities, an emphasis on community service and, these days, help finding work.
Free Wi-Fi at the halls might help, too.
Even so, there are smaller groups and smaller posts that manage to attract a core of younger members.
Gehweiler – who was wounded twice in improvised explosive device attacks in Iraq – joined the Folsom chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart after briefly belonging to another veterans association in suburban Sacramento, which, he said, "seemed to hoard its money."
"Why would I want to be part of an organization that raises money when they don't give the money out? With Purple Heart, the money goes to help people."
The Purple Heart organization gives him a sense of camaraderie that older veterans can understand: He sees great value in connecting with other wounded service members – whether from World War II, Korea or Vietnam – because of the common ground they share.
"You want to talk to people who've shared what you went through," said Gehweiler, who lives outside Grass Valley and owns a technology firm. "It's a different war, but when you're wounded, the things you go through are the same.
"I'm trying to bring in other younger guys to the chapter, because the more I talk about what happened, the better I get."
Because of its emphasis on recruiting Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, as well as its commitment to helping other veterans, VFW Post 6158 in Fair Oaks has seen a slight increase in membership, up to 436 from 419 in 2010.
"We reach out to the community," said post commander Dominick Damore, 63, a retired Sacramento County deputy sheriff who served in both the Air Force and the California National Guard. "We're veterans helping other veterans."
Another reason that post membership has ticked up, he said, is that boomer generation vets like him are reaching retirement and looking for ways to serve the community.
Mary Lou McNeill, executive director of Vietnam Veterans of America Association Chapter 500, agreed that only after the passage of a decade or two will most of today's young veterans see much need to gather with others who served.
"It took awhile for Vietnam veterans," she said. "It was the 1980s before they started forming associations."
Many WWII vets delayed joining
As it turns out, some of that dynamic played out for World War II veterans, as well. Many of those who weren't interested in joining service organizations right after the war ended up being devoted members in their older years.
Once they had time to reflect and mature, they came to see that their shared war years established a bond like no other.
Harold Arkoff – who enlisted in the Army as a 17-year-old from Iowa who had never seen the mountains or the sea – didn't join the 41st Infantry Division Association until more than two decades after war's end. He didn't attend his first reunion until the 1990s.
"I think membership is something that comes later, once you have the time to think about it," he said.
Likewise, Dan Sokol, a retired groundwater consultant who lives at Eskaton Village Roseville, didn't join the association until the mid-'90s, after his first wife died.
"I'd never gotten involved, but I decided I should," said Sokol, 86, "because I thought there was a need. World War II veterans were dying out, and younger vets weren't joining organizations. I thought I should get in and pitch."
During the war, 40,000 servicemen belonged to the 41st, which early in 1942 was sent to protect Australia from Japanese attack, thus becoming one of the first U.S. Army divisions sent overseas in the war. The division spent the war battling through jungles across New Guinea and in the Philippines.
Originally composed of National Guard units from the Northwest, the division was deactivated at the end of 1945. It was reorganized in the 1960s as the 41st Infantry Brigade, part of the Oregon National Guard.
Because the 41st Infantry Division no longer exists, in other words, there will never be a new crop of veterans to join its association.
Membership, once 10,000, has dwindled to 450, and only 300 of those are veterans, said the group's administrative assistant, Carolyn Bach, who lives outside St. Louis.
About 90 people are expected to attend the upcoming reunion – but again, many of those are family members, not veterans.
"Most of us are too old now," said Arkoff. "They don't travel. Some will be there with caregivers."
But seven decades ago, when they were young, they served. And now, they remember.
"It's important to pass on that legacy to young people," he said. "Some wars are worth fighting. This was something we had to do."