It took Dan Suddath, 83, of Rockville almost 20 years to join the American Legion after his service during the Korean War.
T.C. Williams of Gaithersburg, a Vietnam-era vet, joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars 15 years after leaving military service.
Membership in most traditional veterans organizations in the state of Maryland and Montgomery County is on the decline and current members are wondering if the men and women coming out of the post-Sept. 11 conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will join their ranks later like Suddath and Williams, or if this new generation of veterans is finding a different way to connect with their post-service comrades.
The American Legion is the nation’s largest veteran organization with 2.3 million members, including 56,000 in Maryland, according to Patricia McCoy, commander of the Southern Maryland District, which includes Montgomery County.
“They’ve been decreasing and we’re trying to figure out why,” McCoy said at a Legion meeting Nov. 3.
Veterans of Foreign Wars in Maryland has about 27,000 members, according to State Adjutant Paul Kauffman.
“[Membership] has its ups and downs,” Paul Kauffman said. “Right now it is going down because of the WW II vets are dying.”
Kauffman said he is certain the younger veterans will join eventually.
“They have to learn what we stand for, what we do before they join,” he said.
Disabled American Veterans (DAV) has 1.2 million members, with 14,357 in Maryland. Membership in that organization is not declining.
“We’ve managed to be pretty stable,” said Dave Autry, deputy national director of communications for the DAV. “DAV has a proven track record of service to veterans and their families and we have an active membership base.”
Another veterans organization active in the county is the Vietnam Veterans of America.
It too is growing in membership. In January 2012, there were 3,008 members and now there are 3,124.
He explains the increase as one of age.
“People are retiring and they have more time to volunteer, that probably has a lot to do with it,” said Bill Gray, chairman of the Montgomery County Commission on Veterans Affairs.
Williams, 69, said he did not join the VFW earlier because no one sought him out or explained the organization to him.
Suddath said he was busy with work and family and his friends in the American Legion kept after him to join.
“I was looking for comradeship, people with similar backgrounds,” Williams said about joining. “It’s a lot about talking to people who know what you are talking about.”
Williams is past commander and now club manager at VFW Post 9862 in Gaithersburg, which has 336 members. Five years ago he said they had 420.
“It’s been steadily decreasing because of the death of World War II and Korean War vets and the inability to get younger vets to sign up,” Williams said of the post’s membership.
His theory is that, as in his case, members don’t do enough to reach out to the younger generation. He also said he thinks it is because those just getting out of the military are busy with their families and careers.
Not Just Bingo and Bars
And there is the problem of image.
Many people think of bingo and bars when they think of veterans organizations.
“Bingo is just a fundraiser, that is not what we are about,” Williams said showing a list of some of the things the Gaithersburg VFW does.
The list includes sending books, DVDs, phone cards and personal items to military units serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a host of local charitable contributions such as support for Gaithersburg Help, Gaithersburg Youth Sports, a Gaithersburg battered women’s shelter, an annual college scholarship for a Gaithersburg student and support of the Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Command program at Gaithersburg High School.
Membership in the American Legion in Maryland is declining too and Colleen Mulroney, commander of Rockville American Legion Post 86, said she thinks it is because people do not know what they do.
“We are not a place to come in, have a drink and go home,” Mulroney said. “It’s all about what we do outside these walls.”
At a meeting Nov. 3 for all the Montgomery County American Legion posts, groups reported on helping a female veteran get into a new apartment, having dinners for wounded warriors from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, their annual oratorical contest and a scholarship program.
“I think people are unaware of what veterans organizations do,” Mulroney said. “It’s getting out there letting people know what we do.”
Mulroney said Post 86 in Rockville has 631 members and has increased membership during the last four years, adding 31 new members in 2011-2012.
“We’re having more organizations outside the American Legion come to our post, like vets from Walter Reed and we are tapping into the reserve units,” Mulroney said. “We are getting out the word through our Facebook page, anything that gives us exposure to increase our membership.”
The nontraditional norm
Some younger veterans, those who served or are serving in the post-Sept. 11 conflicts, are joining groups specifically formed by or for them.
Mike Bradley, 31, of Silver Spring, who served in the Army in Iraq, says he has not joined any veterans organization except to be a part of Team River Runner, a nonprofit organization devoted to giving active duty service members and veterans an opportunity to “find health and healing and new challenges through whitewater boating and other paddle sports,” according to the group’s website.
He said he has not joined any of the traditional veterans groups.
“I just haven’t,” Bradley said, “I’m not against it.”
That coincides with Williams’ idea that the younger vets haven’t taken the time to be involved.
Cynthia A. Mason-Posey, director of outreach and advocacy for the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs, said she doesn’t think the younger generation of veterans wants to join traditional veterans’ organizations.
“The newer vets coming on board are a whole new generation. They are tech savvy and they don’t want to go to a meeting. They take advantage of social media,” Mason-Posey said. “It’s a matter of a different way of meeting their needs. It’s not a brick and mortar [generation].”
Mason-Posey is a veteran, having served in the U.S. Army for more than 30 years, and is a member of the American Legion.
She is also a member of other, informal, veterans’ groups for women, which she linked up with through social media, she said.
Gray, 65, is a Vietnam War veteran having served in the Army. He is a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America and the Disabled American Veterans.
He said he did not join the VVA until six years ago and is sorry for missing out on the years of friendship and comradery.
“The younger vets don’t want to get involved with a bunch of old guys,” he said. “Any young vet I see I tell them to get involved with the [Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America]."
According to their website, IAVA was founded in 2004 and is the “largest nonprofit, nonpartisan organization for new veterans.”
“There are just under 150,000 members,” said Jason Hansman, senior program manager for health at IAVA.
The group’s mission is to improve the lives of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families through political activism and lobbying in Washington, D.C., for educational, employment and health care for veterans .
IAVA does not have local chapters, it is an online community where members meet in secure chatrooms.
“We do events on the ground,” Hansman said. “Our biggest is to march in the Veterans Day Parade in New York City,”
In the summer, he said, IAVA works with Miller High Life to bring vets to sporting events in their communities
“The value is getting vets out of their home and connecting them to other vets in their community and other resources,” Hansman said.
Veterans who would like more information on services available to them can visit the Montgomery County Commission on Veterans Affairs website at www.montgomerycountymd.gov/veterans.