Once dominated by veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, military organizations’ memberships are dwindling as the country loses its oldest warriors.
Nationally, American Legion membership is about 2.5 million, down from a recent high of 3 million members.
With younger veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, organizations like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars are hoping to get those younger veterans involved.
“We are seeing some [new members]. We sure would like a lot more,” Mike Comerford of the American Legion Post 6 on South Lafountain Street said.
“It’s going to be problem. If we don’t get new members, the organization is going to die.”
The American Legion is the largest wartime veterans service organization with about 2.5 million members in nearly 14,000 posts in nearly every community in the U.S. The Legion, established by an act of Congress in 1919, was instrumental in getting the original GI Bill through Congress and the creation of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In 2010, the membership for District 5, which includes Kokomo Post 6 was 8,462. In 2013, that number dropped to 7,638, said Bruce Drake, media communications director for the American Legion Department of Indiana.
“For one, we’re advertising more on local TV and radio,” said Drake. “We’re actually seeing an increase in younger vets. Plus, we’ve opened up five new posts including at Indiana colleges including IUPUI in Indianapolis.”
Drake also said organization leaders were in discussions with IUK to possibly set up a post at the Kokomo campus before the recent tornado hit.
“We are reaching out to younger veterans and we are seeing a growth as the younger vets are now settling in after returning home,” said Drake. “We’re on par to go above last year’s membership.”
Drake said the Legion has an advertising contract with the Indianapolis Colts inside the stadium and has membership tables in the tailgating areas. The Legion also is part of several community-based projects including an Indianapolis Indians pinch-hit program to give needy children a chance to enjoy a game at the ballpark.
With membership numbers approaching 40,000, the Veterans of Foreign Wars has also declined in recent years.
“We have lost 3 percent of our membership the last few years consistently,” said Terry Bruning, adjutant quartermaster for the VFW state headquarters in Indianapolis.
“A lot of members are dying,” said Bruning. “The World War II vets were the dominant group, with Korean War vets close behind, and they’re dying off. The newer members are coming along. The problem is not signing them up. The problem is getting them active beyond that. The younger veterans are more concerned with working on their families and careers when they get back.”
With that in mind, Bruning said, VFW leaders have set up several programs to help men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan get acclimated to civilian life and get them any assistance they might need.
“We have a team that recruits at National Guard and Army Reserve events and members put together bon voyage parties for troops and welcome back dinners and ceremonies,” Bruning said.
“It’s an ongoing, never-ending effort,” he continued. “We do a good job in tracking new veterans. Our membership compared to last year is 93 percent of where we were one year ago. In Ohi,o even though they have more members, they’re 90.6 percent from the year before and Michigan is 91 percent. We’re a little ahead of our neighbors.”
Despite a lull in nationwide memberships, the Kokomo VFW is stronger than ever, helping young veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, said Ken Fisher, commander of the VFW Post 1152.
“We’re getting some [younger members], but it could be better,” Fisher said. “We have a lot of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans sign up and we also do a transition program like other organizations to assist them in making the transition in coming home.
“We’re at a 112 percent from last year’s membership,” he continued. “This is the fifth year we’ve been an all-American post.
“Right now we need to get our regular members to re-sign. We really have a large contingent of reservists. We have a lot of veterans who just walk in and a lot of older guys sign up to make sure they get the military rites at their funeral — which you don’t have to be a member to get the military rites. We do it for all veterans.
“The big thing is trying to make sure our guys are being taken care of,” Fisher said. “There’a a lot of guys returning with psychological problems and homeless. They feel like they’re alone.”
Along with pushing legislators for benefits, the VFW helps out its area veterans in a wide range of fundraisers including its involvement in the Jackson Street Commons, a new veterans’ home set to open in March.
“We spent this past year working on the Jackson Street Commons project,” Fisher said. “We’re contributing by getting donations for the furnishings, sheets and towels.”
Along with providing veterans assistance, the VFW 1152 has two military rites teams that conduct funerals for veterans. The teams also are in need of new members.
“The numbers of World War II and Korean veterans passing does make it difficult,” Fisher said. “Hopefully, we’ll have programs in place for the younger guys to get involved with.”
FYI For more information about the Veterans of Foreign Wars go to www.vfw.org, or for information about the American Legion go to www.legion.org.