VFW dilemma: How to keep young soldiers at the post after they’ve been off-base
May 7, 2007
Jeff Morrison insists he’s not chasing windmills.
He wants to persuade young soldiers to hang out Friday nights at the new post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars rather than hit Baumholder’s rowdy downtown bar scene.
“What we’ve done is establish an area where the soldier can come and relax,” said Morrison, the newly-elected commander of the Baumholder VFW post. “We’re looking to get the younger generation involved.”
From now until the end of June, the post will open up on Friday nights to give soldiers a place to go.
Morrison, 47, could be facing a bit of an uphill battle in his quest to lure soldiers from the excesses offered downtown. The bars and clubs are a formidable attraction, Morrison acknowledges.
“We hope to give soldiers an alternative,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight and we understand that.”
In December, the VFW moved from a base outpost to the heart of the garrison. The new facility, located next to the base movie theater and fast-food restaurants, includes satellite televisions, Xbox video games and plenty of space to lounge. The goal is to create more opportunities to educate soldiers about the VFW’s volunteer and lobbying work, Morrison said.
Army Sgt. Stephan Johnson, 26, said the only thing he really knows about the VFW is that many of its members wear “those hats.”
“I’m not really aware of what they do,” said Johnson as he passed by the Baumholder VFW post on his way to lunch.
Johnson’s friend, Sgt. Curtis Simmons, said it won’t be easy getting young soldiers involved.
“How are you going to get us here? You’ve got to bring what’s off post, on post. Where are the ladies?” Simmons, 27, wondered.
“They’re welcome to bring guests,” Morrison says.
The Baumholder VFW post has about 600 members, though there are about 20 active participants.
Involving young people also has been a challenge for the VFW at the national level. The VFW has experienced a more than decade-long decline in membership. Slumping interest could mean less clout when it comes to lobbying Congress on important veteran issues.
“Getting new members, it’s certainly a challenge but the VFW isn’t unique in that respect,” said Jerry Newberry, VFW spokesman at the organization’s national headquarters in Kansas City. From PTAs to rotary clubs, volunteer groups constantly struggle to recruit members, he said.
VFW membership reached its peak in 1992 with 2.16 million members. After years of decline, this year there are signs that the numbers will stabilize and possibly increase, Newberry said. Today, there are about 1.8 million members.
“The old VFW is slowly going away. The Vietnam vet is pretty much taking over,” Newberry said. “The goal is to make VFW posts a place that’s family friendly and appeal to the new generation. We want these posts to become centers of the community. The ones that don’t get it will go away.”
Making the post the center of the community is what VFW leaders in Baumholder are trying to accomplish.
“People think the VFW is just a bunch of old guys sitting around drinking beer. It’s not,” Morrison said.
In Baumholder, home to the 1st Armored Division 2nd Brigade, many of the soldiers are just a few years out of high school, single, or just starting families.
In recent weeks, the VFW has been seeing an increase in inquiries from soldiers interested in joining, Morrison said.
“We can do just about anything here,” said Morrison as he looked around the VFW’s spacious new office.
One thing the VFW post can’t do is sell alcohol during its Friday night gatherings.
“BYOB. We can allow them to bring their own,” Morrison said with a smirk.