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American Legion, VFW fight to maintain ranks, political clout

Traditional groups see membership decline, struggle to attract younger veterans

May 29, 2011|By Larry Carson and John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun

"We want that local post to be a hub for the community," Herndon said. "It's not just for the now. We're also trying to build a solid foundation for the future."

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America has taken a different approach, membership director Adam Bryant said. Instead of trying to get recruits to come to a hall or post, the organization relies more on social networking and the Internet.

"We reach the veterans where they are, which quite simply is online," Bryant said. "This generation of veterans really grew up on the Internet. That's been our wheelhouse."

The organization, founded in 2004, has grown to 96,000 members.

The old-guard organizations remain a potent force in Washington, lawmakers and others said, advocating on behalf of their members before Congress, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"I think the fact that we're actively at war now really gives them a purpose and a cause," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat who serves on the House Armed Services Committee.

That continuing presence has paid off. When Congress pushed the federal government to the brink of a shutdown recently, veterans who rely on the government for health care didn't have to worry because their coverage had been funded in advance. That wasn't by chance: Veterans groups had lobbied hard for the guaranteed spending, disclosure reports show.

In 2008, the organizations advanced a new $78 billion GI Bill of Rights, which covers in-state tuition at public universities, provides stipends for books and housing, and allows veterans to transfer the benefits to a spouse or child. The VFW also represents thousands of veterans each year who file for disability claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"Our mission hasn't changed as far as legislation goes," said Raymond C. Kelley, the VFW's top lobbyist. "We're trying very hard to get solid benefits for young veterans and current veterans, and hopefully prove our worth to them and ask them to be members."

The VFW and the American Legion said they, too, have increased their online presence in recent years, both to attract new members to their organizations and also to get the word out about their advocacy efforts.

All that activity is helping the older groups remain relevant in Washington despite the proliferation of younger organizations dedicated to specific types of veterans — some of which are spending more on lobbying than the VFW and the American Legion combined.

The VFW and American Legion reported spending a combined $21,000 on lobbying in the first quarter of this year, according to lobbying reports. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and the Disabled American Veterans each spent $200,000 during that period.

Tim Tetz, the American Legion's top lobbyist, said newer groups often have to spend more money to introduce themselves to policymakers in Washington.

"Most of the time it's us spending time in the trenches," Tetz said, rather than hosting expensive receptions.

Leaders of the traditional groups said they are working hard to attract new members, by holding family-themed events, showing up at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport to see off service members headed overseas and meeting them again when they return.

They send personal comfort packages to those stationed overseas and advocate for individuals that have difficulty securing the benefits to which they are entitled.

"We are behind them," said Vietnam-era Marine veteran Henry C. Schminke III, commander of Charles Evering VFW Post 6506 in Rosedale. "We will not let them get shafted. We're fighting for them."

Schminke said the post has a service officer to work with individual veterans who need help.

Still, he said, "the day of the volunteer is fading," and few have the dedication or time the older generations were used to.

"I got here [at the post] at 4 a.m. and left at 5 p.m." one day recently, Schminke, 68, said, to oversee plumbing repairs. But age is taking its toll in Rosedale.

"My work crew are in their 80s," he said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

john.fritze@baltsun.com

Veterans service organizations

OrganizationMembershipFederal lobbying expenses in 2010

American Legion2.4 million$27,600

Veterans of Foreign Wars1.5 million$40,000

Disabled American Veterans1.2 million$810,000

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America96,000$220,000

Vietnam Veterans of America50,000$240,000

Paralyzed Veterans of American/a$369,768

Source: Organizations, Secretary of the Senate

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