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Old Veterans Organizations Are Fading Away

Wall Street Journal
Friday, Sept 24 2021

Peggy Randle is 85 and lives alone with her cat, Max, in Boulder City, Nev. She also fires rifles at veterans’ funerals. A nurse in the Navy during the Vietnam War, Ms. Randle belongs to the Veterans of Foreign Wars and other organizations that help provide military honors when soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are laid to rest.

“The cat isn’t much of a conversationalist,” she says, “and I still have something to give. I can still stand up there and fire that M1. I can still help with the 13 flag-fold. I can still do all of those things, and I’m going to do them as long as I can.”

Veterans across the country report the same experience: declining membership in the VFW and American Legion, and the difficulty putting together honor guards for funerals. The VFW had its origin in 1899 gatherings of veterans of the Spanish-American War. The American Legion began after World War I, at a 1919 meeting in Paris. Both started as essentially interest groups but quickly grew into vast national networks of local social clubs.

Those clubs would host civic programs such as essay contests, Friday fish fries and scholarships for veterans’ children. The American Legion’s summer baseball program was once so extensive that few high schools bothered to organize their own teams, and more than 3,400 local teams are still active today.

The VFW has around 1.5 million members, a drop of a million from 1992. The average age is 67, with 400,000 members over 80. The largest organization of veterans’ clubs, the American Legion, has two million members, down from 3.3 million in 1946. Kenneth Hagemann, 59, is a retired Marine and deputy adjutant of the VFW in New Jersey. There are 218 posts left in the state, he explained, but “in 10 years, I think it will be 175. We go down every year.”

One reason is simply the decline in numbers of veterans. During World War II, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 16.5 million Americans served in the armed forces. Estimates of those who served in the war on terror over the past 20 years hover around three million.

There’s another reason the old organizations are fading: Younger veterans simply don’t join clubs the way older generations did. Partly this reflects a general decline in community organizations—the sociological transformation that Robert Putnam observed in his 2000 book, “Bowling Alone.” Americans aren’t joiners. Not like they once were.

But the VFW and American Legion are also shrinking because many veterans from the past 20 years carry with them a more ambiguous sense of both their military experience and their relation to established American institutions. “Vets now don’t look for comfort in person at clubs,” said Alexia Hodgson, an Army second lieutenant in Anchorage, Alaska. Social media, she suggested, fills some of the gap. “A lot of vets I know . . . talk about their life and experiences, both in and out of the military, over Reddit, Discord and Twitter. ”

“My generation engages in a different way,” added the novelist Phil Klay, a retired Marine and winner of the 2014 National Book Award for his short stories about military service in Iraq. “We tend to be more issue-focused than the old local organizations”—and yet, he admits, “it’s important to keep memories alive through local rituals.” The difficulty in providing honor guards, he said, symbolizes a worrisome detachment of his generation from local communities. When younger veterans do join a group, they tend toward newer and more service-inspired national organizations such as Team Red, White & Blue or Team Rubicon.

Something important is lost, however, when the local connection is broken. “I was still on active duty when my grandfathers passed away, and I went to the funerals in uniform,” said Josh Hauser, a former Marine staff sergeant in Hollsopple, Pa. “That was the first time I realized who takes care of this very important thing, because it was a local VFW that did the military honors.”

And what will happen when those old veterans’ clubs are gone? The social-club model simultaneously integrated veterans into the local community and gave them a sense of national importance. “I sometimes can’t comprehend how we’re able” to get to all the funerals, said Robert Garlow, honor-guard commander for VFW Post 36 in Nevada. “Yeah, we feel stretched thin, but it’s something we really want to do.” Consciously or not, they’re right to feel a personal and sociological significance in what they do. The old local community organizations understood the importance of attending funerals to comfort the family and honor the service of the dead.

“They’ve earned it,” Ms. Randle explained. “And maybe someday someone will think I’ve earned it, too.”

Ms. Bottum is the Joseph Rago Memorial Fellow at the Journal.

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