SANTA FE, N.M. — As a veteran of the Gulf War some 20 years back, Rosemary Morales-Vargas said she didn’t think she initially fit in at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post on Montezuma Avenue in Santa Fe.
“I remember seeing the World War I and World War II veterans here and thinking, ‘This is not for me,’ ” the native Santa Fean said. But she came back in 2010 and joined the organization, which is 400-plus strong these days. “I was looking for something I could hold on to. This is it.”
The majority of that post’s members served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. But it’s been tough to recruit young veterans who served in recent conflicts.
It’s the same story over at the American Legion Post on Berry Avenue, where Cmdr. Pat Patterson, a member for 25 years, said younger veterans are not joining. “Once they get out [of the service], they want to be a civilian again and get away from us guys over here telling our war stories,” he said. While membership in the last few years has remained at about 250 people, few come from today’s military personnel.
Santa Fe’s veterans organizations are attempting to reverse the trend toward declining and aging membership by drawing in new members. At 1 p.m. — or 1300 in military time — Tuesday, a Veterans Assembly will be held in the Governing Board’s conference room at Santa Fe Community College on Richards Avenue. Though the event is aimed at those who served in recent conflicts, all veterans are invited to attend, and refreshments will be served.
Army and National Guard veteran Frank Schober, 80, is one of the organizers of the event. He is a member of the local Military Order of the World Wars, which, he said, has about 15 regular members. “It’s beginning to look like the Grand Army of the Republic,” he joked, noting that it is nearly impossible to attract younger veterans.
“They’re not joiners in a lot of ways, even generationally,” Schober said. “It’s endemic in that population cohort. Volunteer fire departments are also having a hard time getting young people to join. So are the Masons, the Knights of Columbus and other groups.” He said older veterans can do more to connect to younger veterans.
While many of these organizations are housed in buildings that many assume are simply private clubs, they often offer links to social services for veterans and, in some cases — as with Santa Fe’s VFW — financial support for widows and college scholarships for high school graduates.
The VFW’s leaders are leading a charge to bring in the under-40 crowd. Afghanistan War veteran Dante Halleck, who is in his mid-30s, said he wants to see a swell of new veterans coming in the door. “We want to help them return and make them realize they are part of the community,” he said. “And let them know that this is someplace where they are always welcome.”
The Women Veterans of New Mexico, founded in 2006 and headquartered in Albuquerque, reaches out to younger veterans through the Veteran Resource Center at The University of New Mexico, according to Judy Quintana, president of the organization. “A lot of them, once they come out [of the military], transition into school to help the move forward with employment.” She said younger veterans often are not immediately focused on hooking up with a support group while they are looking for work or reacclimating themselves to a community.
Media reports from around the country have emphasized the challenges many veterans groups are facing as older members die off and younger veterans embrace a “non-joiner” attitude.
Many of these groups were founded nearly a century ago. The VFW began in 1899. The American Legion and the Military Order of the World Wars both started in 1919. Others, such as the Women Veterans of America, began as recently as 1990.
Shober said he will consider Tuesday’s event a success if “it gets these younger veterans meeting and talking to one another.”