Shrinking veterans organizations struggle to attract younger members
Larry Wampler sighed as he unloaded the ceremonial rifles used by the Veterans of Foreign Wars for military funerals in Tarentum.
“We can barely fill a burial detail,” Wampler, a wood craftsman from Harrison and retired Army sergeant first class, said while handing a pair of the rifles to another member of VFW Post 5758. “I'm the youngest guy on the detail, and I'm 60. We're dying.”
Wampler's distress is being felt by veterans organizations locally and nationally. The VFW and American Legion, powerful lobbying groups for veterans' rights, are struggling to attract new members.
The VFW once had 2.1 million members; now it counts fewer than 1.3 million. The American Legion, once 3.3 million members strong, now boasts just 2.4 million.
The VFW and American Legion, often credited with establishment of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Post 9/11 GI Bill, provide important support services for veterans and their families.
Beyond funerals and parades, they assist with disability claims and provide college scholarships and emergency housing. VFW members alone gave 8.6 million volunteer hours and donated $49 million toward community service last year.
So why are such organizations shrinking?
Simply put: Current members are dying off and aren't being replaced by younger veterans.
“The younger fellows are a problem,” said Pennsylvania Cmdr. Thomas Brown, a Navy veteran who served in the Korean War. “They come back and have their families and don't have time. Even I was close to 50 when I joined, and I'm the state commander.”
The VFW has been around for more than a century. Its founding convention was held in Pittsburgh's Schenley Hotel in 1914. Most members today are veterans of the Vietnam War, with fewer remaining from the Korean and World War II eras. The National WWII Museum estimates that 372 veterans of that conflict die daily, with only 620,000 of the original 16 million soldiers still alive.
The honor guard at Wamp‑ler's post is an example: It consists of veterans in their 70s and 80s. They've performed 60 military funerals this year.
Pennsylvania has the highest VFW membership of any state at 76,500 but that's dropping. State membership declined 15 percent of its membership in 2016, Brown said.
According to the VFW, only 15 percent of the eligible 2.5 million Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have joined the service organizations.
“When a young veteran comes back, the priorities are to not join anything once the children come,” Brown said.
Attracting younger members is tough
Brown said the organization has long been fighting an image problem: Most young veterans think of VFW posts as nothing more than smoke-filled bars where older veterans go to buy cheap drinks.
“We're trying to kill the image of a private canteen,” he said. “A lot of our organizations have gone nonsmoking to help pull in younger crowds and clear our image.”
Lee Johnson, commander of VFW Post 92 in Lower Burrell, said his post has tried other tactics, such as offering the first year of membership free to recently discharged veterans.
But, so far, nothing is working for Post 92. Its membership used to top 3,000, but now stands at just over 2,000.
“We've had events in the banquet hall, we've had meetings with younger veterans,” Johnson said. “We've tried, but it's still an older crowd. Somehow, we just can't get them in.”
Tom Rushnock, commander of the 400-member American Legion Post 868 in Lower Burrell, said his post used to have twice as many members. But he believes membership is a problem beyond what the organizations can fix on their own.
Rushnock said today's veterans often don't know where their civilian careers will take them.
“After they get out of the service, veterans may not want to get involved and start paying dues at a club unless they know they are going to stick around,” he said.
VFW membership fees vary by post, but are generally less than $45 annually. American Legion membership fees are $30 annually.
Brown said the organizations have a communication problem with younger vets.
“The VFW, on a national level, they don't seem to push it and advertise as much as they should,” he said. Perhaps, Brown said, the VFW should work more through social media, instead of the mail.
Randi Law, manager of communications and public affairs for the national VFW headquarters, said the organization is doing its best to adapt, but not every post is getting the message.
“We're trying to create an environment that is more attractive to young veterans,” she said.
“A lot of posts are changing the way they do business. They've closed their canteens, gone nonsmoking, installed playgrounds and established family nights.
“Some are doing really innovative things, like post art shows. Posts that have accepted the need to evolve have thrived.”
Regardless of suggested solutions, Wampler's honor guard has a problem.
“I need veterans to step up and help,” he said. “If we don't get assistance from the younger generation, we're probably going to have to disband the honor guard eventually.”
Matthew Medsger is a contributing writer.