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Once-thriving fraternal veterans' organizations face hard times

| Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, 10:28 a.m.
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Veterans and guests look skyward as the American flag is raised during a Veterans Day observance at Chartiers Valley High School in 2011.
Randy Jarosz | For The Signal Item
Empty chairs line Carnegie VFW Post 331 at 370 Logan St. in Carnegie.

Photos of days gone by line the walls of American Legion Post 82 in Carnegie. Framed flags and posters hang over old wood paneling and empty chairs. A mile away, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 331 experiences similar disinterest.

Chartered by Congress in 1919 as a veterans' organization, the American Legion hit its peak after World War II with 3.3 million members. The VFW dates to the Spanish-American War in 1898, when veterans formed local groups to help the sick and wounded. It received national status by 1936 and peaked in the 1990s with nearly 3 million members.

But times are changing.

“Younger men and women coming out of the service — they're coming out in their 20s or 30s – they're not interested in joining the organization,” said Carnegie Legion manager Ted Endler. “I have no reason for that — I couldn't tell you.”

Endler said declining membership has forced the post to cut back on community service projects.

“We try our best, but in recent years, we've had to cut back because of membership,” he said.

Mike Allen, a service officer at VFW Post 331, said the decline is troubling. The post has about 120 members who actually are veterans of foreign wars, and about 400 overall.

“It's really discouraging,” he said. “There's strength in numbers, but we can't accomplish what we want to do unless we have the support of the communities and the veterans.”

Since 1992, VFW membership has fallen by nearly a million. In that same time, more than 1,000 posts have closed.

The borough honored deceased veterans every two weeks during the summer with a flag ceremony. Allen said it was difficult to find veterans willing to participate in the ceremonies.

Matt Herndon, deputy director of membership for the Legion, said membership has been fluctuating for years.

“If you think about the men and women returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, their first concern isn't being a member,” he said. “They're looking at how to get an education started, how to get their career started. The Legion is on the back burner in terms of what they're thinking about.”

He said posts should be making themselves more visible in the community.

“They should make sure they are an asset in the community,” he said. “People want to belong to a winning team.”

Endler says it is not that simple.

“We've tried,” he said. “We've even offered free membership for the first year. They declined to take it.”

He said young veterans view organizations like the Legion and VFW as activities for older generations.

“I don't think they realize the American Legion does more — it's not just a bar,” he said.

Allen, who also is a sergeant at arms at the Carnegie Legion, worries posts like his could die out.

“I think most of the veterans' clubs — without the support of the community and the veterans — they're going to close,” he said. “They just don't have an income to keep the clubs open anymore. It's going to be a sad thing.”

Megan Guza is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5810 or mguza@tribweb.com.

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