When the 16 million soldiers, sailors and airmen came home from serving their country at the end of World War II, large numbers of the 16 million who had served joined the two largest veterans organizations, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.
Remembering their military service became a major element of their lives. However, some of those wars and “police actions” since Victory in Japan Day have been less widely accepted at home. Perhaps the resulting isolation and trauma are in conflict with organizations honoring veterans’ service.
And that’s impacted membership numbers. With those numbers of World War II veterans shrinking, the organizations have limited success at attracting younger replacements.
Many young service members — 2.4 million men and women who have seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past 11 years – apparently have little interest in signing up.
A former Marine I know saw action in Somalia. Jeremy’s Arkansas National Guard company was assigned to Iraq for a year, followed several years later by a tour in Afghanistan. He takes pride in his service, but doesn’t talk about much about his time in combat.
A captain with a municipal fire department, Jeremy is moving forward with his life: Reconnecting with his wife, son and daughter and just trying to make a living.
The average age of a member in the VFW is 61, two years younger than Jeremy’s father.
Membership in the American Legion reached 3.3 million in 1946 and has fallen to 2.3 million today, while VFW membership has fallen to 1.5 million from a high of 2.2 million two decades ago. Many of the nation’s 2.7 million Vietnam veterans observed that men and women who served in previous wars didn’t seem well-informed about the war in Southeast Asia, while some younger returning veterans have noted the reverberations of traumatic brain disorder aren’t a priority for older veterans.
Jeremy says he doesn’t mind sharing a beer with his friends and fellow National Guardsmen, but hanging out on bar stools to drink with veterans and discussing combat has a much lower priority than his family.
It’s not just the American Legion and VFW encountering trouble signing up young members. Membership in the Lions, Rotary, Exchange and Kiwanis civic organizations has been growing older and shrinking in numbers.
Jeremy said he does not have time to attend three or four civic club meetings each month.
For many of the younger veterans, it may just be an issue of timing. They’re in their mid-20s and to mid-30s. Like their counterparts in 1946, today’s returning vets are trying to move forward with their lives: Attending college to upgrade their work skills, reconnecting with spouses and families and just trying to make a living.
There are no easy answers to generational differences.
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Larry Fugate is a veteran journalist and former editor of The Pine Bluff Commercial. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (870) 329-7010.