Ken Miller, from Troy, left, and Al Ford, from Gladwin look over photos from the Korean War at the East Detroit Roseville American Legion post. (Madalyn Ruggiero / Special to The Detroit News)
Utica— Veteran service organizations offer former members of the military a place to get help or swap war stories from around the world.
But many are fighting a new battle at home: How to stem declining membership.
Even as a large contingent of young warriors returns from two lengthy wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a generational divide is making it harder for groups such as the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and AMVETS to get them to join posts, where they can get assistance with veterans issues, volunteer in the community or find support.
The biggest reason younger veterans don’t join is that they’re busy acclimating to civilian life, said Andrew Keirn, 30, national AMVETS spokesman.
“Once service members leave the military, they take time to go to school, get their career and family on track and that monopolizes most of their time,” said Keirn, who served in the Marines. “It usually takes a veteran 10 years to settle back into civilian life.”
Once veterans find stability, Keirn said, they seek out the camaraderie found in veterans service organizations. But he acknowledged some younger veterans harbor preconceived notions that the posts are places they’re more likely to find their parents than their peers.
Ryan Sieja, 29, said he attended meetings at the AMVETS Post 27 in Warren, but soon lost interest because it felt more like a social club.
“If all you are doing is getting together, having some beers and chewing over your service from 50 years ago, it’s fine, but it is just not going to be interesting to me,” the ex-Marine said.
John Murphy of VFW Post 6691 in Fraser said bringing generations together is difficult, especially young adults who turn to social networking more readily than joining a community group.
James Slinker, 28, of Clinton Township served in the Navy from 2004-08, completing two deployments in the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
While he respects veterans service organizations, he said there’s a disconnect.
“Although all generations of servicemen serve the same flag, we do so under an incredible difference,” Slinker said. “When I transitioned from military to civilian, I did not face protesters that disgraced my time, but rather, a salute from strangers ... so there is less need to attach to organizations that offer support.”
Targeting new members
Five years ago, the Victor I. Rieck American Legion Post 351 had 700 members, which fell to 300 in 2013, said Timothy Welker, post commander and a Vietnam veteran.
To recruit members, the post called and visited veterans, focusing on those younger than 50, in a national push to target new members.
According to Christine Tonegatto-Salo, in October the post gained 85 members during its membership drive. The post also raised $500 in phone cards during a craft show that members sent to units in Afghanistan.
Tonegatto-Salo, 54, a retired Marine staff sergeant from Shelby Township, said the post now has a Facebook page and a website, post351.tripod.com.
Like Welker, Jim Wolfe, commander of the East Detroit Roseville American Legion Post 261, said he and his fellow members are reaching out to try to increase membership.
“There are only about up to 10 members that show up to the meetings. The ones that do show up are in their 70s and 80s,” said Wolfe, who served in the Army during the Gulf War era. “My finance officer is 89 years old and has been doing the finances for 50 years.”
The American Legion has more than 2.4 million members worldwide; 85,000 in Michigan.
Service organizations are not tech-savvy, said Sieja of Detroit, another turnoff to joining.
“Some posts are still sending out paper newsletters,” he said. “A 20-year-old veteran won’t look at that. It is better to get to them through Twitter.”
Randi Law, spokeswoman at the VFW national headquarters in Kansas City, said some posts are behind the times. “If a service member were to walk into a local post, there’s a 50-50 chance they are walking into a one that is outdated,” Law said. “It is unfortunate, but it is the truth.”
Law said the largest segment of its membership, which numbers nearly 2 million including its auxiliaries, is made up of those who served during Vietnam (U.S. involvement began in 1961 and ended in 1975), but it has 32,000 members under 29.
The American Legion and VFW need to meet younger veterans “where they are at,” said Jason Hansman, senior program manager for health programs for the New York City-based Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Founded in 2004, Hansman estimates the average age of IAVA’s members is 31. The organization has 270,000 members and supporters.
“We are using online tools such as Facebook, Twitter,” said Hansman who served in Iraq with the Army. “The medium is important, especially for this generation, who does not want to or need to meet at a VFW hall or a physical location, but can still get a lot out of virtual communication.”
To counter the idea the VFW is old hat, it updates its national website often, sends a newsletter once a month via email and uses social media such as Facebook and Twitter, Law said. The American Legion also maintains a national website and is on Facebook and Twitter.
Keirn of AMVETS, which has 250,00 members, said the national organization updates its website regularly, publishes a magazine, holds membership drives and uses social media.
Wolfe, 40, the youngest member of American Legion East Detroit Roseville Post 261, said some younger veterans may lack a sense of community involvement. But, Hansman, 30, disagrees.
“There are organizations out there that counter that narrative,” said Hansman, an Iraq veteran. “Team Rubicon sends vets ... to do disaster relief. This is almost a trait of people who have served in the military, they want to give back to the community.”