Veterans of Foreign Wars recruiting Afghanistan, Iraq vets
Stars and Stripes November 7, 2004
Service organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars face some grim statistics from the Department of Veteran Affairs.
More than half of the VFW’s members worldwide are World War II veterans.
The Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that 1,481,000 of the 4,370,000 World War II vets who were alive in September 2003 will die by September 2007.
That is an average of 1,014 per day.
To compensate, service organizations such as the VFW are trying to lower the average age of their members by recruiting younger veterans.
The first step the VFW in Europe has taken is trying to eliminate a stereotype of what the VFW is, according to Peter H. Luste, senior vice commander for the VFW, Department of Europe.
“People still think of us as a bunch of old codgers sitting around drinking and telling war stories,” Luste said.
In fact, of the VFW in Europe’s 10,000 members, the foreign war most represented is the Persian Gulf War, with the global war on terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan running a close second, Luste said.
Although there are concerns that servicemembers who are fighting the war in Iraq will leave the U.S. military at an alarming rate, that doesn’t seem to be the case when it comes to signing up for service organizations such as the VFW.
“We have not encountered any difficulties in signing up Iraq veterans,” Luste said. “This is totally different from Vietnam, where you were afraid to admit that you were in the military because of the sentiments back home.
“All the soldiers that I have seen coming home are patriotic. These guys and gals are proud of what they are doing. If some soldiers are disgruntled and planning to leave the military and not look back, that may just be for something that happened specifically to them.”
Luste, himself a Vietnam veteran, has the numbers to back that up. When the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Southern
European Task Force in Vicenza, Italy, returned from Operation Iraqi Freedom in March, the VFW Post 8862 membership jumped from 574 members to about 1,200 members. Luste is the commander of Post 8862.
“We set up a table at the in-processing that all the soldiers had to go through to greet them and welcome them home,” said Luste, who is commander of the Vicenza post. “They remembered the cards and letters that we sent to them downrange. They remembered the 8,000 phone cards we sent them.”
Of the approximately 2,000 SETAF soldiers returning from Iraq, nearly one-third of them joined the VFW.
“When they returned, we invited them to dinners and entertainment events we had scheduled,” he said. “They came in droves. The majority of them signed up for lifetime memberships.”
Among the new members was Staff Sgt. Daniel Pilo, from the 173rd Aviation Brigade. His wife, Candi, had been a member for about five years.
“I think, for the most part, that even the soldiers I served with that were leaving the Army were proud to have served,” said Pilo, who is getting out of the Army and returning to his hometown of Long Island, N.Y. “Even though I’m getting out, I still want to show my support.”
Pilo said that his local post in Long Island is made up mostly of older veterans, but the number of young vets is growing.
Sgt. Mareike Meusel, from the 510th Personnel Service Battalion’s Detachment D in Vicenza, joined the VFW when she was in-processing upon her return from Iraq in April.
“I think just about everyone in my unit signed up,” Meusel said.
She added that part of the reason she joined Post 8862 was that it offers activities that she’s interested in.
“We have monthly dinners and go on a lot of trips across Italy,” Meusel said. “There are some older veterans, but most of them are close to my age.
“We don’t really talk war too much; most of the discussion is about serving in Italy. I like that [VFW] is very active in the community. We support a lot of the ceremonies and we attend the retirements and funerals of fellow veterans.”
In Bamberg, Germany, possibly the biggest step in getting new members was to elect 30-something Persian Gulf War veteran David Blakeley the Post 10592 commander.
The post signed up many 1st Armored Division soldiers upon their return from Iraq in July and August by holding events such as bowling parties and barbecues for the units as part of a sponsorship program.
In Bamberg, there were some soldiers who had no interest in staying in the military or becoming a VFW member, said the senior vice commander, Wayne Carroll, a veteran of the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars.
“They say when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” Carroll said.
“Many of our soldiers that came back did get going and they joined us. But there were some who got going out the door. You could see it in their eyes.
“For those guys who wanted nothing more to do with the military or with the VFW, what can you do? You can’t force them to stay in or join our organization. Whether they join or not, the VFW’s lobbyists will still go to Congress to help them keep their veterans’ benefits.”
Carroll added that he has noted a trend of soldiers leaving the military after every conflict, not just the war in Iraq.
“There are some people who just want out of the military and they don’t want to be part of the life anymore,” Carroll said. “It’s pretty much the same after every conflict. It was like this after the Persian Gulf, and it was much worse after Vietnam.”
With the 1st Infantry Division returning to Germany late this year or early next year, Luste is optimistic about the future of the VFW.
“The more members we recruit, the stronger our organization is,” he said.
“The stronger our organization is, the better armed we are to go to Washington and fight for veterans’ rights and benefits.”
What the VFW does ...
The Veterans of Foreign Wars traces its roots to 1899 when veterans of the Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurrection founded organizations to fight for veterans’ rights.
Currently, the VFW has more than 9,000 posts and more than 2 million members worldwide.
The organization lobbies on Capitol Hill for veterans’ rights and benefits, gives about $2.5 million each year in scholarships and conducts the Operation Uplink program, which puts thousands of free phone cards into the hands of deployed soldiers each year.
... and how to join
Membership in the VFW is open to veterans of foreign conflicts who have left the military or who remain on active duty.
A list of conflicts that determines eligibility is posted on the VFW Web site www.vfw.org.
The VFW has annual or lifetime memberships available. An application can be printed from the VFW Web site and mailed to the organization, or anyone interested in signing up can contact the local VFW post for information on eligibility and membership requirements.
The VFW Web site has a post locator that provides contact information for the posts in Europe.