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Veterans’ groups struggle for relevancy with younger generation of servicemen

fr veteransWhen Bobby Rathbone came home from Vietnam over 40 years ago, joining a veterans group was the last thing on his mind. Drafted into war, fighting in Vietnam was hardly something to celebrate or wear on his sleeve.

“We wasn’t treated all that well. Nobody respected or appreciated anything we’d done,” Rathbone recalled. “I had no interest at all in nothing other than trying to get through life the best that I could.”

He got a factory job, got married and had kids, but always felt something was missing. He finally found solace through the camaraderie of fellow veterans at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post in Waynesville.

“I realized it was more than just a place to go and drink and shoot the bull with old comrades. We don’t just sit around and tell war tales,” Rathbone said. 

Now, as his generation of veterans ages, he’s concerned by declining membership in groups like the VFW and American Legion. 

“It is really, really hard to recruit these newer Iraq and Afghanistan veterans,” said Rathbone, the commander of the Waynesville VFW post. “About the only place you see them is when you have an appointment at the VA. When I see those guys it brings back so many memories. They are in their own little world. It is hard to talk to them. I think they feel the same way I did when I came back. I just wanted to be left alone.”

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The American Legion membership has declined from 3.1 million in 1993 to 2.4 million in 2013. The VFW saw a similar drop over the same two decades from 2.2 million to 1.4 million.

“They will all tell you the same thing — they are really having trouble getting younger people in. Membership is dwindling nationally and locally,” said Ron Rookstool, a member of both the American Legion and VFW in Waynesville. “They don’t have that many new veterans. They just aren’t interested.”

What to do about it and what’s causing it is hard to say.

The most obvious reason: veterans from World War II and the Korean War that once anchored the American Legion and VFW are dying. 

“We have lost a lot of WWII veterans and are losing a lot of Korean veterans,” Rookstool said.

Vietnam veterans now comprise the majority of members, but the next decade is poised to take a huge toll on their numbers. Who will replace them is a major cause for concern in the veterans’ service organizations.

Around 16 million Americans served in WWII — 12 percent of the population. There were 5 million in the Korean War and 8 million during Vietnam.

Compare that to the 2.5 million who’ve served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Not only are there fewer of them, they weren’t drafted from the general population, aside from the call up of National Guard troops.

All that equates to a smaller pool of new veterans to draw from in small town America.

But that isn’t the only challenge. The American Legion and VFW need to recreate their image to remain relevant and show they are more than just a dim smoky bar with worn pool tables and bingo nights.

“I heard it was just a place to go and get drunk. But I am here to tell you that is not true,” Rathbone said. 

Rookstool agreed they have to break past the reputation. 

“Primarily the Legion and VFW are seen as a place to go drink,” Rookstool said.

But gathering around the bar isn’t the only mingling they do. The American Legion post opens at 8 a.m. for coffee and biscuits, with a full breakfast buffet on Saturdays.

Rookstool said for him, the groups are about brotherhood.

“I like to be around other veterans. We have a lot in common. It is a unique situation serving with people from all walks of life, getting to know them, the friendships you form,” Rookstool said.

Rick Strubeck, the commander of the American Legion post in Waynesville, shared a commonly held theory for why the younger veterans don’t join.

“It is a different world now than when I first got out of the service. Generally both parents work. Veterans seem to only have time to raise a family,” Strubeck said.

Between work, kids and home life, there’s no time for hobbies or outside interests it seems, Strubeck said. It’s the same reason participation is down nationwide in everything from golf country clubs to volunteer fire departments.

But it’s just a guess.

“I can’t tell you the reason why younger vets aren’t joining these groups,” Strubeck said.

The Maggie Valley VFW post has made in-roads in new membership with a bar and grill that caters to a public clientele, not just members. It has a robust lineup of bands and karaoke nights that appeal to a younger set —  at least comparatively, given the average age of VFW members nationally is 70 — and have an active Facebook page. It’s a relatively new post, formed by members who split off from the Waynesville VFW post. 

That raises another point, however. The sheer number of competing veteran’s service organizations doesn’t help their viability. In Haywood County alone there’s an American Legion post, two VFW posts, plus active groups of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Disabled Veterans, Marine Corps League and the Retired Officers Association.

“We probably have too many of them really,” said Gary Boyer, a member of the VFW in Waynesville. 

Boyer said the groups would be more financially viable if they merged, but it begs the question — which one would close down its post.

“I don’t know if they would ever yield and think about consolidating. People get kind of tribal,” Boyer said.

Whether there’s enough members to go around to support both a VFW and an American Legion in Waynesville in the future remains to be seen, however.

“To me what would make sense would be to combine the two into one,” Rookstool said.

About half the 200 to 250 members in both the American Legion and VFW in Haywood County are already members of both, Rookstool said.

Warren Dupree with the Steve Youngdeer American Legion Post in Cherokee holds out hope that increasing membership is like anything else in the military. 

“It’s hurry up and wait,” said Dupree. “Younger veterans have full-time jobs and they have families to take care of. They don’t have the time. As they grow older, they will.”

Dupree said he too is concerned that younger members aren’t joining the American Legion quickly enough to replace older members dying off.

“But we should temper that concern,” Dupree said.

Dupree served in Vietnam and Desert Storm, but several years passed before he finally joined the Legion.

“You are so burnt out on the military structure. The military is a highly disciplined, extremely regimented organization and it can take its toll. So when you separate you want to distance yourself as far away from that as possible,” Dupree said. “But over time, in the years that follow, you come to see you really miss the camaraderie.”

The American Legion in Cherokee is one of the few veteran’s groups that doesn’t have to overcome the stigma of a drinking club. Like the rest of Cherokee, it’s dry.

“We have a lot of veterans from outside the area who come and visit the post when they are on vacation here and they want to know where the canteen is — that’s what they refer to as the bar,” Dupree said. “But we don’t get up at 7 o’clock in the morning and pop the top on a beer can or take a drag.”

Members of the veterans’ groups stress their mission of service, part of the fabric of life that would leave a void in the community if they dried up. They sponsor baseball teams, hold fundraisers for community causes, have honor guards that provide graveside military honors at veterans’ funerals, and provide a support system for older veterans.

Strubeck said the veterans’ groups also play a valuable role lobbying for veterans’ issues. He pointed to the decades-long uphill battle over Agent Orange, the toxic chemical used in Vietnam with lasting health repercussions for millions of veterans.

“At first they wouldn’t recognize that it caused any kind of problems. They refused to accept any responsibility that it did any damage at all,” Strubeck said. “They are finally recognizing that Vietnam vets were poisoned with that shit.”

Strubeck has fought his own health battle directly tied to Agent Orange from his year of exposure during Vietnam ground combat. This summer, more than 100 veterans in the region attended an Agent Orange outreach program hosted by the American Legion post in Cherokee to advise Vietnam vets of the growing list of health problems now linked to Agent Orange — and now thankfully covered through VA benefits.

“There is progress. There might be a light at the end of the tunnel,” Strubeck said.

Strubeck credits veterans groups for moving the needle — not just on Agent Orange but a host of veterans’ issues and policies. Their lobbying clout depends on their membership ranks, however.

If the VFW and American Legion can find a way to prove their mettle with the next generation, it will no doubt be steeped in the special brand of camaraderie only those who have served in the military can understand.

“You got people with common interests and common experiences and it is sort of a brotherhood you couldn’t get anywhere else. That bond will never go away,” Boyer said.

Eventually, the younger veterans will seek out that element that’s been missing in their life.

“It takes us a few years to realize and grasp that,” Dupree said. “As veterans we will think back and say ‘I would really like to get back into that.’”

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