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Vets organizations suffer changing world

Veterans organizations, long-standing local institutions, are having some trouble drawing younger members.

Despite the many men and women coming out the military and into civilian life each year, most are not seeking membership in these local organizations.

Leo F. Haley, commander of Catholic War Veterans Post 1051, Pottsville, who served in the Navy from 1952 to 1955, said last week that today's veterans "aren't joiners" and don't have the same attitude towards service that they had years ago.

"It (recruiting younger veterans) is one of the most difficult tasks we have," Haley said. "It seems that in World War II and Korea, there was a camaraderie that seemed to exist when they came home."

Haley, a Korean War veteran, said that while the deployments today are terrible, "they're not as long and sustained as they once were" and therefore he thinks the recent veterans are not building that same type of connections with each other.

He also said soldiers are more connected to their family and friends today due to advances in technology. Isolation in former periods may have led soldiers to form stronger bonds with their brothers-in-arms.

"Most World War II and Korean veterans joined immediately coming out of the service," Haley said. "Now it isn't until they get married -- some are married before they go in there -- and raise families until they're ready to join and, by then, a lot have lost interest."

With Haley, who is active in many other organizations such as the Lions Club, he said low membership is present in more places than just the veterans organizations.

Dave Fessler, of American Legion Post 38, Schuylkill Haven, and assistant director of veterans affairs for the county, said that while it varies from organization to organization, some have younger veteran members, but most do not.

"We (American Legion Post 38) often talk about this and we've tried several different things to get new members," Fessler said.

Fessler said some of the ways they tried to recruit new members, which failed, included paying their dues while they were in the service and they would take over when they got out and paying their dues for the number of years they served.

"We do discuss the fact that most of us are presently Vietnam veterans and back when we first got out, the bottom line was we didn't get involved either, until later," he said. "We had families and jobs that we needed to do. We're not sure (why they aren't joining) because we don't get to talk to these guys."

While Fessler could only speak for his American Legion Post, he said every organization has some kind of benefit for veterans such as life insurance policies, help with "various situations that need to be rectified" and they organize legion baseball.

"That's probably why they don't come in, they can't give us that time," Fessler said. "Maybe eventually, down the road, their families will grow up and they'll want to get involved."

John B. Raughter, communications director with The National Headquarters of The American Legion, said that younger veterans are joining, but it varies from community to community.

"What we're finding is that after any war, sometimes it takes a little while to get them to join," Raughter said.

Raughter said the American Legion is providing services to the veterans and hoping they will join later in life.

He also said that an article from the May 19, 1971, edition of The Wall Street Journal reported that the "newer" veterans, which were Vietnam veterans, were not joining The American Legion, but today, The American Legion has approximately one million Vietnam veterans, including their national commander, making it the largest Vietnam veterans organization.

"Sometimes if you're looking at one community or one post, that's only part of the story," Raughter said. "We do have a lot of posts that are really reaching out for younger members."

Edward Rayfield, 29, of Pottsville, and Ryan Smith, 31, of Saint Clair, are recent veterans and current students at Penn State Schuylkill who do not belong to any local veterans organizations.

Smith served in the Navy from 2002 to 2006 and was an E4 culinary specialist, while Rayfield was a specialist in the Army, having served from 2008 to 2011 and was a mechanic.

Both said the major reasons they haven't joined an organization is the age difference, the cost to join these organizations and the fact that most are bars.

"People just don't have the $300 to give away for a lifetime membership," Rayfield said. "Around here I didn't know there were so many American Legions until somebody pointed them out to me and even then, I'm not interested because they're bars and I don't go to bars. I don't drink."

Rayfield said his experience with the organizations is once you get into the scene of drinking with them, you're expected to become a "pledged member" where you dedicate time to discuss problems they're having, fundraiser ideas, who needs help and he has not time for all that, being a full-time student also working both a full-time and part-time job.

"A lot of them, it's hard to relate with," Rayfield said. "Who's going to be able to relate to someone who was in the Vietnam war, somebody who is from my era. It's not like being in Iraq. We also like to play video games, you can't deny it. You're not going to be going up to some 70-year-old man and say, 'Oh man, did you see that new expansion on WoW (World of Warcraft)?' "

Smith agreed with Rayfield saying they don't have time since most are too busy going to school or starting their own families, but the biggest thing is the age difference.

"I don't think it has anything to do with us per say, I think it's more to do with the generation gap and there has been so many differences between wars," Smith said. "The time span is significant and not to say that if there were more wars there would be more members of the VFW, but there would. They could relate to each other more."

Smith also doesn't drink so the organizations don't appeal to him, also the military now has alcohol "deglamorization" programs and smoking is prohibited.

He said he sees many of the organization members in parades, which is something he's not interested in at this point in his life.

While coming back from war was a big deal in the past, he said today there are so many in the armed forces it's hard to keep track of everyone, another reason they aren't banding together like the older veterans.

"There's no presence to where the younger guys are," Smith said. "There's no Facebook ads. There's no Facebook groups. The strongest ones who started that whole thing were from World War II."

Both also agreed with Haley that today's veterans don't have he same attitude towards service.

"It's like every man for himself sometimes," Rayfield said. "That goes against the Army values, but the thoughts behind the Army values would be different if we're in a war-based scenario. I was in Korea for two years, Texas for six months and basic training and AIT (advanced individual training) for six months and I only stayed in touch with two people."

They said that the type of camaraderie doesn't exist anymore, such as writing letters or even having to band together afterwards.

"I have people who I was stationed with on my Facebook, but they're doing their own thing. Some are even on the other side of the world and some don't have a Facebook," Smith said. "It's just not there, that thread. I don't know what happened, if that's just the way society is today because of technological advancements that we can be more independent than we were before. We really don't need a plethora of people to help us do something, so it's completely different."

Many veterans are also seeing jobs in the government or seeking jobs as civilian contractors, so they're not completely out of the military scene, but are out of the area where the organizations are.

"I could see here what could be a dying breed," Smith said. "Today I'm going to school to get a degree and work in that field to make a difference, which is the same thing and I don't have to be part of an organization and deal with the bureaucracy, such as how are we going to raise money and what parades are we going to march in."

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