VFW Struggles to Draw in New Veterans

The Norman Transcript

TAHLEQUAH, Okla.— Ray Spear would’ve become a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3707 in May, but he had to wait a month. There weren’t enough members at the May meeting to vote him in.

Like posts of the VFW all over the country, Tahlequah’s Post 3707 is seeing a decline in numbers, along with an increase in the age of members.

Tracing its history back to 1899, when soldiers returning from the Spanish-American War were not provided adequate medical care, the VFW works to ensure rights and benefits for veterans.

But as their ranks continue to decline – even as soldiers continue returning from the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq – VFW members are trying to get the word out that, more than a century later, the organization’s mission hasn’t changed.

“To keep it open, we’re going to have to have some help,” said Bill Taylor, past quartermaster of Post 3707. “No ifs, ands, or buts about it.”

Along with past Commander and current Sergeant at Arms Gerald Summerlin, Taylor has been a steady presence at Post 3707. But neither was able to make it to the regular monthly meeting Monday because of health concerns.

“We’ve opened the doors a lot of times and we’d be the only ones there,” said Summerlin. “We’ve got two or three [members] who were in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam – all three wars. But we need anybody that’s eligible.”

VFW membership is available to all U.S. service members who have earned an overseas campaign or expeditionary medal and are on active duty, in the Reserves or who have been honorably discharged from the U.S. armed forces.

That’s most of the soldiers returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq, but few of them are joining up.

“When I first got out, I found the DAV [Disabled American Veterans] did everything I needed to do,” said Jason Jennings, a veteran of both Afghanistan and Iraq. “As of right now, I’m going to school, working six days a week, I’m the president of the Veterans’ Association at NSU, and I’m an officer in my fraternity. I don’t have time for much else.”

Members of the VFW can relate. They were once young soldiers returning home to jobs, school, and families, too.

“When I came back from Vietnam, I didn’t want to have anything to do with [the VFW],” said Dan Garber, junior vice commander of Post 3707. “But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized the VFW works to get Congress to provide benefits like the GI Bill and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The government doesn’t provide benefits for veterans just because they want to. It’s organizations like the VFW that lobby to get those benefits.”

Post 3707 Commander Ken Rystedt agrees that, while the VFW benefits all veterans, it often takes a while for them to realize that fact.

“When I first got out of the service, I didn’t want to have anything to do with anything military, or any kind of veterans’ organization,” he said. “It took me 30 years to change my mind.”

Garber said he’s been told by some young potential members that they’ve just felt too much of a generation gap between themselves and current VFW members.

That, he said, won’t happen at Post 3707.

“Some people in the past have had the experience of coming to the VFW and not feeling welcome because they’re too young, but we’re not going to make people feel that way,” he said. “We need those young people. We need their ideas, we need their energy. And someday, they’re going to need this organization.”

Eddie Glenn writes for Tahlequah (Okla.) Daily Press.

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