VFW works to attract young veterans, stay relevant

Veterans of Foreign Wars is an aging organization

Hanging on the walls inside Veterans of Foreign Wars Fort Concho Post 1815 are timeworn photos of soldiers in uniform, awards of heroic achievements and war souvenirs.

They tell about combat and camaraderie that members of the VFW pride themselves on, but times have changed, and members of Post 1815 now struggle to recruit younger veterans and stay relevant in their community.

"We are kind of an aging organization," post commander Wayne McShan said. "The VFW has kind of a negative connotation because it is known for having older folks. The problem with organizations like this is the numbers don't grow, new members don't come in, and then we can't help."

McShan wants to spread the word that the VFW is more than a club for older men and that the nonprofit organization has a long history of fighting for the rights of combat veterans and helping them and their families.

"As a kid it didn't matter where you went, the VFW was always doing something in the community," McShan said.

The VFW began in 1899 when veterans of the Spanish-American War and the Philippines Insurrection -- many of them sick or wounded -- came home and organized to get rights and benefits, according to vfw.org, the national organization's website. After chapters were formed in Ohio, Colorado and Pennsylvania, the movement quickly grew. By 1936, nearly 200,000 veterans had joined.

Today, national membership stands at nearly 1.4 million, according to national VFW spokeswoman Randi K. Law.

"Membership numbers have decreased slightly in recent years," Law said via email, attributing the decline to an aging membership.

But, Law wrote, "it's inaccurate to suggest veterans of the modern era are not joining." She said veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars "make up about 10 percent of our overall membership. Percentage-wise, this is a larger market share than any previous war."

San Angelo's Post 1815, founded in 1930, has more than 300 members. Post members who fought in foreign wars like Vietnam and Korea are hoping that younger combat veterans from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars will see the importance of joining the club.

"VFW is here for vets that need help," said Darrell Elliot, former post commander and a Vietnam veteran. "Whatever we have in the funds, it's used to help vets. Our job is to take care of (them)."

Post 1815 hosts fundraisers and reaches out to young veterans using word-of-mouth and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Sometimes just learning more about the VFW's mission can open eyes.

Reys Cruz, an Air Force veteran of the Iraq War, said he didn't realize he qualified for VFW membership. "I thought it was for older veterans," he said. "I went online, did some research and decided I wanted to be part of the community."

Cruz, who was elected post chaplain earlier this year, said, "People don't understand, especially in my generation, that if it wasn't for this organization they wouldn't be getting benefits."

Post commander McShan said he tells young veterans "it's our time to step in. ... Clubs like this are here to help support our veterans, their families and the community as a whole."

Contact Michelle Gaitan of the Standard Times in San Angelo, Texas, at michelle.gaitan@gosanangelo.com.

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