American Legion, VFW fight to maintain ranks, political clout

Traditional groups see membership decline, struggle to attract younger veterans

  • Tom Hobbs of Catonsville plays "Taps" as the new flag is raised to half staff during a Memorial Day ceremony to replace the flags of VFW Post 7472 Saturday.
Tom Hobbs of Catonsville plays "Taps" as the new… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
May 29, 2011|By Larry Carson and John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun

At 62, Maryland American Legion Commander Michael L. Mooney is one of the younger members of his Baltimore County post. And that, he said, is part of the problem.

Membership of the Parkville American Legion Post No. 183 has dropped by half over the past decade, he said, and is losing another 5 to 7 percent each year.

"Ours is a primarily World War II post," said Mooney, a Vietnam-era veteran.

With the youngest survivors of World War II now in their mid-80s, and few of the tens of thousands of new veterans minted in Iraq and Afghanistan during the last decade showing much interest in taking their place in veterans service organizations, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and other groups are struggling to hold on to the active membership they need to remain vital.

For decades, the organizations have supported armed services personnel before, during and after deployments, lobbied state and federal officials on their behalf, and promoted civic education and community service.

But now they confront the challenge of dwindling numbers. The American Legion has lost 300,000 members in the past 10 years, leaving 2.4 million. The organization has closed 160 halls nationwide since 2007, leaving 14,100.

Membership in the VFW has fallen from a 1992 peak of 2.2 million to about 1.5 million this year. The VFW has shut down more than 3,200 posts during that period, leaving 7,600.

In Maryland, home to 465,700 veterans, the American Legion recently merged a post near Woodlawn into one in Phoenix. And Mooney's Parkville post, which officials say was once one of the largest in the nation, is to be visited this week by officials from national headquarters in Indianapolis, who will bring a list of area veterans to help local members recruit.

"The World War II guys are passing away," said Tom Davis, adjutant for the American Legion Department of Maryland. "The younger ones haven't seen the light yet, so to speak."

Meanwhile, groups such as the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America have sprung up to lobby for better care of those who served in those wars. Leaders of traditional groups say they are not in competition for members.

The problem, officials with the VFW and Legion said, is that service members coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan now are too busy trying to get an education, establish careers and support young families to get involved in veterans organizations.

The officials speak also of the long time gaps between the wars of the 20th century and the conflicts of the 21st, and the changes in military culture that came with the Vietnam War, the end of the draft and the rise of the all-volunteer military.

"Lifestyles change," said Douglas MacArthur, state commander of the VFW and a Vietnam-era veteran. "Today's young people don't think the way we do."

Kemp Freund, the 60-year-old commander of VFW Yingling Ridgely Post 7472 in Ellicott City, said it's a matter of finding members who want to be active.

"We're getting people to join," he said. "The problem is they're not participating. They're not jumping up volunteering their time. They pay their dues, and we never see them."

Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, a colonel in the Army Reserves, said the traditional groups are important in "connecting vets to benefits." But Brown, who has served 27 years in the military, including a tour in Iraq, said all the groups have to change how they operate because the younger generation lives differently now.

"They are more likely to connect to the world from their living room couch than leave home and go to a veterans service organization hall," he said. The same change, he said, has left once-crowded officers' and noncommissioned officers' clubs on military bases "like ghost towns."

Gaines Robinson, 23, a former Marine now living in North Laurel, finds it more convenient to mix with fellow veterans at Howard Community College, where more than 300 young veterans are enrolled.

"It's a place for us to connect with other veterans," said Robinson, the acting president of the school's two-year-old Student Veterans Organization.

He said the opportunity to sit down and exchange information about issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder is important. Still, he said, he's got nothing against the VFW or the American Legion.

"We would love to be in an organization like that, but we don't have time."

Davis, the adjutant for the American Legion Department of Maryland, said the Parkville post had 4,700 members as recently as a decade ago.

But that number has since fallen to 2,400, earning the post the visit from the national organization.

Matthew Herndon, an assistant director of membership with the American Legion, said the organization does about 100 such "revitalizations" a year. Some involve the national headquarters staff; others are carried out entirely by state officials.

In addition to going door-to-door looking for new members, he said, the American Legion tries to strengthen a post's programming.

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