Archive for Thursday, February 26, 2004

Veterans’ groups battle dwindling membership rolls

Graying of verternas groups poses challenges for organizations’ future

February 26, 2004

Visit any of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars posts and a few trends should emerge.

For starters, the group is most likely discussing or in the midst of planning an upcoming community service project. And visitors are bound to hear a veteran recall a war story or two.

But, if you listen to the stories carefully and pay attention to those telling them, another trait will emerge, a characteristic found most prevalent in each of the VFW's locally, as well as the 9,000-some posts across the country.

"A little less than half of our membership worldwide are veterans who fought in World War II or Korea," said Jerry Newberry, who serves as communications director of the national VFW headquarters in Kansas City.

According to varying estimates, between 1,200 and 1,700 World War II and Korean War veterans are dying each day.

The VFW is the nation's oldest veterans organization, and the largest portion of its membership is graying -- and quickly.

To balance this natural progression, VFW posts across the country continue to recruit new members.

Membership has grown in recent years, especially following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition, broadened eligibility requirements for possible members have helped infuse membership.

Since the nature of war itself has changed, so has the VFW adjusted to fit the times, Newberry said.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars has broadened eligibility requirements to include soldiers who have fought in the war on terrorism as well as skirmishes such as Panama and Grenada.

Long-standing pillars of membership such as serving overseas in "a theater of war," remain in place, but now members also find themselves eligible for the VFW if they drew hazardous duty or immediate danger pay, Newberry said.

"Basically, the person still has had to have faced some danger while they were in the service," Newberry said.

The broadened requirements have not only brought new members to the VFW but also new posts have emerged and ones once held stagnant have revitalized, he added.

Harold Denholm, a World War II army veteran and member of the Tonganoxie VFW post 9271 said his organization faces a similar generation gap similar to ones other posts do. At least half of the VFW's membership are veterans who fought in World War II or Korea, Denholm estimates.

However, the Tonganoxie post has taken strides to find younger members.

"We're trying to turn the corner," he said.

Denholm said post commander Larry Meadows, a Vietnam veteran, has been instrumental in recruiting new and younger members.

"Larry has done a real good job of recruiting Vietnam veterans," Denholm said. "We've done real well under his leadership."

Along with a changing membership, the Tonganoxie VFW is also taking strides to shed the stereotypes of VFW halls and meetings.

"We think we're changing the image here in Tonganoxie," Denholm said. "At a lot of halls, there is smoking and drinking and a lot of veterans still fighting wars from World War II.

"We don't have a bar and there's no smoking in our hall," he added.

The primary purpose of the Tonganoxie VFW is to serve the community.

"We feel like we're a service organization," Denholm said. "We're here to serve the community, they're not here to serve us. We're always into something and we hardly turn anybody down when they ask us to do something."

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