New veterans not joining the old

Local VFW follows national trend with declining membership

Posted: Sunday, November 11, 2007

Army National Guard Spc. Brent Clancy recently returned as a newly minted veteran of war from a yearlong deployment to Kuwait. The last thing on his mind, however, is joining a veterans organization, even the most prestigious: the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

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As a family man focused on leaving the military and raising his daughter, Clancy is not really sure what the VFW is about or what its mission is.

"To tell the truth, I don't know," he said.

As the number of local Iraq War veterans grows, the VFW continues its decades-long decline in membership.

"Most of the kids coming back today don't know about or appreciate what can be done," retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Pat Carothers said. "It's just a shame."

George Roberts, the current commander of Taku Post 5559 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said he is not sure why younger veterans don't join.

"There are a lot of veterans in town," said Roberts, a Korean War vet. In fact, Alaska has the most veterans per capita of any state in the Union.

Past Post 5559 Commander Tim Armstrong, a Vietnam veteran, attributes the VFW's declining membership to a greater social occurrence that all fraternal organizations face: People go home after work and don't stop in at a VFW hall for a drink or to socialize.

"Times have changed," Armstrong said. "It's different than 20 or 40 years ago."

Like a lot of younger veterans, Clancy has heard the VFW is a World War II social club and thinks it belongs to the "older generation." Some younger war veterans have criticized the organization as being focused only on World War II veterans' issues.

Roberts says the local post doesn't revolve around the politics of World War II.

Unlike other veterans organizations, the VFW requires a person to have served in a foreign theater of war to join.

Veterans started organizing after the Philippines Insurrection of 1899 and as Spanish Civil War veterans petitioned Congress for medical care and pensions after they were left to fend for themselves.

Since its beginning, the VFW has acquired at least 45 major legislative victories, including the creation of the Veterans Administration and the GI Bill of Rights, which put hundreds of thousands through college.

Two world wars, three Asian conflicts and countless skirmishes later, Post 5559 in Juneau is one of 8,400 posts worldwide with declining memberships largely due to the thousands of World War II veterans that die daily.

At Post 5559, no active member is younger than the Vietnam era and most are aging Korean War veterans.

The World War II veterans that Clancy heard of are now too frail to be active members beyond their twice yearly appearances at Veterans Day and Memorial Day.

Today, 50 years beyond it's heyday, Post 5559 has 10 to 20 active members. Local leaders did not have numbers on past membership. Roberts said about 100 veterans still pay dues without participation in the monthly meetings.

It's been years since a new member joined. That person was a transfer from Anchorage, he said.

Carothers, a former Marine, served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and said the VFW will prevail. Veterans from the 1990-91 Gulf War through today's Iraq War will eventually join organizations such as the VFW because their bodies will begin to give out as they enter middle age, he said.

"Things happen to the body," he said. "That's when they need veterans' organizations."

Sgt. Mac Metcalf is a new veteran who returned home with Clancy in October and is at military retirement age. Metcalf crosses the generation gap. He served in Vietnam and then after years of civilian life, he served again with the 297th Infantry in Kuwait.

Back in the 1970s, Metcalf joined the Taku Post after returning from Vietnam. Years later he left the organization because of generational differences. He said it was a World War II social club and that he had nothing in common with its members after returning from an unpopular war.

"They were doing good things though," Metcalf said, aware of the group's advocacy on a state and national level.

Armstrong said that work continues today and knows that the veterans returning from Iraq will need help both medically and psychologically for years to come.

"Veterans helping veterans - that's what it is," he said.

Armstrong shares the same faith in the VFW as Carothers. He knows that when aches and pains of combat injuries grow old and the nightmares grow too intense, veterans will come looking for help at the VFW - "after they get fed up dealing with Veterans Affairs."

Clancy offered some advice to the older generation bearing the torch for all veterans. He said they should reach out to the younger generation in ways that other support groups do.

"The VFW should spend a drill weekend talking to us about the benefits of joining."



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