The McLean Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 8241 celebrated its 40th Anniversary recently with an event that brought out veterans from a number of wars. What was missing from the event was young veterans who have returned from fighting overseas in recent wars. The lack of new young members has plagued the VFW in recent years.
The majority of the McLean VFW members are from World War II and the Korean War. The average member is of retirement age or older.
Some government statistics indicate that 1,000 WW II veterans die each day. This means that VFW posts need to replenish their ranks with new veterans in order to stay a viable organization. The McLean VFW has done well with its membership. It is consistently above membership bench marks because of word-of-mouth referrals. Over the last few years, it has even been able to find and sign up WW II veterans who were never before involved in the organization.
VFW leadership, however, is at a loss as to how to make the group more attractive to young veterans.
Past McLean VFW commander C.D. Crouch said, “A lot of it has to do with time. If you look at the average young veteran now, they’re working, their wives are working, they’ve got kids, and they’re already stretched thin. We’re a volunteer organization, an extracurricular activity. They are already stretched so far it’s hard to actively participate.”
Several veterans at the anniversary celebration said that Vietnam was the turning point for new members. Veterans returning from Vietnam were not treated to the heroes’ welcome from the public that veterans from previous wars had received. They were also not embraced by older veterans.
“At first there was a lot of animosity in that they weren’t very well accepted by the veterans groups. That has dissipated to a great degree over time,” said Crouch.
Vietnam veteran Lyle Stewart attends the McLean VFW post. Stewart said that when he returned from serving, “Nobody greeted me with flags and balloons. But I just wanted to come, and once I did, get on with it.”
Stewart believes that many younger veterans aren’t joining the organization because “they aren’t getting the word out. And there aren’t enough young veterans out there who feel the importance of keeping up with the organization.”
Politics is at play even in the VFW. George McCracken, a retired Marine sergeant who started the McLean post four decades ago, said there is a difference in the wars being fought and how that plays out back home. “When we fought, it was do or die. If we hadn’t gone, well, we’d all be marching under a different flag. Now, we all watch it on TV. The military is afraid to make the moves they need to because of how it will be seen on the news. [Iraq] is just different than it was back then,” said McCracken.
THE VFW IS ACTIVE IN THE COMMUNITY, especially with events centered on children and the elderly. But a perception persists of the VFW as a place where old guys get together to drink cheap beer and smoke cigarettes in the canteen.
“There’s a stereo type that the VFW is nothing more than a bar with cigar smoking. People don’t see the VFW as being family friendly. That’s another reason the young guys are staying away,” said Crouch.
Several young ex-military personnel attended the anniversary to honor the service of the veterans. Great Falls resident Bill Phau, who served in the Navy, came to experience the camaraderie of being with others who have served in the military.
Phau engaged McCracken and others in telling war stories but in the end was most struck by the aging population at the VFW. Phau said, “Look around at the history here. These guys have some amazing stories to tell, but man, everyone is old. It’s a little like being in a Quentin Tarantino movie.”
McCracken, who at 80 is still spry and optimistic, said, “Listen, in 40 years this post has accomplished a whole lot. We are a great organization, and people are joining. The VFW is not going away. The boys over there in Iraq will be eligible to join, and many of them will.”
According to Crouch, the VFW is currently engaging in several programs to recruit active-duty personnel to the VFW. The Ladies Auxiliary is an offshoot of the VFW that could ultimately contribute to bringing in new members because of the group's involvement in supporting the troops. Tracy Wharton, the McLean Ladies Auxiliary president, said, “We go out of our way to help anyone who needs help. One of the things we do is to recruit a troop and send out packages of stuff to them while they are serving. Everything from phone cards so they can call back home to clothes.”
Those troops, upon returning, are likely to remember the source of small comforts while fighting overseas. “We’re looking to our youth, bringing them on board and nurturing them,” said Couch. “We’re asking[ returning troops] to look at us and to see what they think.”