VFW, American Legion see drop in membership
Veterans organizations have seen their membership decrease due to the natural aging process, but the organization's leaders say younger veterans are not signing up to take their places.
Two out of the three veterans organizations in Carlton County have seen their membership numbers drop over the last five years.
While the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) numbers are dropping, Disabled American Veterans (DAV) membership has seen an increase in the last five years.
Rick Maki, 73, is a member of all three organizations. He said about 10 years ago there were 100 WWII and Korean War veterans in the American Legion, and now there are four.
"The youngest generations are not signing up for these organizations," Maki said.
VFW Post Adjutant, Troy Smith, 46, is one of the younger members. He joined the VFW in 2013. He said there are a few factors that explain the large age gap in memberships.
One reason is because of a gap in wars between Desert Storm in 1991 and Iraq and Afghanistan in 2001, he said. The long span of time means there were fewer veterans during that time frame.
He said another reason is the majority of young veterans are getting their education, starting families and beginning their careers when they get out of the military.
All three organizations raise money in a variety of ways to help veterans, but only the VFW owns a building, which comes with the usual responsibilities, said VFW Sr. Vice Commander Gary Dahl, 77.
He said he thinks those responsibilities keep some people from joining the VFW. The aging VFW building needs repairs, which requires volunteers to either do the work or raise money to have the work done, Dahl said.
The VFW also includes a bar. Between owning the building and running the business, the VFW members hold more meetings, Dahl said.
The American Legion sold their building in Cloquet about three years ago due to financial issues. Legion members currently meet at the Northeastern Saloon and Grill, and the DAV meets at the VFW, Dahl said.
Larry Sell, 76, agreed with Dahl. A member of all three organizations, Sell said he was active in the VFW when he first joined, but soon became busy with his job and family. He has not been to a VFW meeting in many years, but said he still contributes financially.
Sell became more active with the DAV because there are less meetings and he liked that they are more hands-on with helping veterans in need, he said.
All of the veterans said the reason they joined was to be involved in the community and to surround themselves with other veterans who understand what they have been through .
Sell joined the VFW in 1967 after returning from Vietnam.
“It was the thing to do when you came back,” Sell said.
Tom Willette, 72, said he waited to join until around 2000 because he was busy working and raising a family in the earlier years.
However, he said veterans tend to find their way to the local organizations. Camaraderie is one of the key drivers.
“They’ll find out as the years go on that they will want to be with other military,” Willette said. “Some of the younger veterans have post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They come back but don't talk about it until they join one of the organizations for support.”
Smith said hearing the experiences of his fellow members is something he appreciates.
“As a younger vet, I get to be around some amazing veterans, including prisoner of war veterans,” he said. “I hear stories that could be in movies.”
Another reason younger veterans should join is for guidance on benefits, such as home loans for veterans, health care benefits and more. Navigating the paperwork can be difficult, Willette said.
The pandemic negatively affected the organizations' fundraising efforts this year, and not just from a fundraising standpoint, Smith said.
He explained the fundraisers are ongoing initiatives with the dual purpose of raising money for veterans and bringing new veterans into the organizations. By having a presence in the community, such as running the brat wagon or selling poppies, the veterans are meeting new veterans and inviting them to join, Smith said.
The organizations are hopeful newer generations of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will continue to join. While there had been an influx of people joining the VFW before COVID-19, Smith said the groups are losing older veterans at a faster pace.
There are ways the community can help support veterans. Smith said residents can attend their fundraisers, stop at the brat wagon or visit the new burger wagon in the parking lot of the VFW, which is open from 4-8 p.m. Fridays.
Without volunteers, the community efforts the veterans organizations support — like youth baseball teams and all night graduation parties — will suffer, Smith said.
"If there are less people, there are less volunteers and there will be less programs," Smith said.