Subscribe

STUTTGART, Germany — The only people who can join the club are described in its name: Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The 93-year-old VFW has a historic ring to it, yet still is in danger of being forgotten.

Those who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam are grandfathers and grandmothers, and their numbers are dwindling. So are the VFWs.

New faces are needed — such as ones hardened by combat in Iraq and Afghanistan — to carry the VFW’s torch or, for that matter, keep it lit.

“We’re starting to struggle with what our organization is going to look like 20 years from now,” said Glen M. Gardner Jr., senior vice commander-in-chief for the VFW of the United States.

“That doesn’t mean we won’t be as viable on Capitol Hill to protect veterans’ benefits. And we’ll still participate in patriotic events so those across the pond [in the United States] will never forget those who served.”

Gardner, a Vietnam vet who is next in line to become VFW’s top commander, traveled through Europe last week to meet with top commanders and troops, “to look them in the eye” so he could take their words back to Congress.

“Are their families being taken care of?” was the top question, Gardner said.

The VFW’s biggest job is shouting out for veterans’ issues — access to hospitals, paying for education, protecting jobs and even housing homeless vets.

However, to some, the organization’s image is of gray-haired guys wearing medals and marching in Memorial Day parades, of sponsoring Little League teams, of hosting bingo at smoky, members-only beer joints.

Some of the young bloods who could be the future of VFW ask, “The VF-What?”

“I’d never really even heard of it,” said Spc. Antonio Freeman, a young veteran of the war in Iraq.

“I don’t really know what they do,” added Sgt. 1st Class Rolando Chacon, another Iraq veteran. Both are stationed in Stuttgart.

Even with bumper crops of eligible veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, membership in the VFW is dropping.

There were 1.72 million dues-paying members on June 30, but only 1.41 million through this week. Although many memberships are expected to be renewed by Dec. 31, and thus lessen the drop, 2007 is expected to mark the 14th straight year of declining membership, according to Matt Claussen, the VFW’s deputy director of membership.

“Is it the 25 bucks per year to join?” Claussen said by phone from Kansas City, Mo. “I can’t believe that. But we have more walking out the back door than we have signing up and what we keep, and that is a shame.”

Gardner and Claussen said that many younger vets don’t think they’re eligible to join.

“They don’t consider themselves a ‘veteran’ yet,” Gardner said. “They think that’s someone who is out of the military.”

Gardner will meet with the president and leaders of Congress when he becomes commander. He said one of his top issues would be synchronizing efforts between the Defense Department and Veterans Administration, such as dealing with vets’ medical records.

Among his clientele will be the new veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — some of whom do know a little about VFW.

Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Moog, for example, joined two months ago and Staff Sgt. Brian Brewer is thinking about it. Both soldiers, members of the 52nd Signal Battalion in Stuttgart, marched in their small hometowns’ Memorial Day parades while on leave, Moog this year and Brewer in 2006.

Moog said he carried the flag in his parade in Bryan, Ohio, because the other vets were too old to do it. Brewer marched in Lodi, N.Y., in his Class-A uniform, which he happened to have with him.

Any youth movement, Brewer said, should start with youth manning VFW offices right on military installations.

“They need to get somebody who is actually in the military to be their recruiters,” Brewer said.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up