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VFW seeks to diversify, reaches out to young vets

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LEAVENWORTH, Kan. » The Veterans of Foreign Wars’ post in Leavenworth traditionally was dominated by aged ex-servicemen. But in recent years a revolution has occurred in the Kansas Army town, with a new young leadership transforming the post into a center providing support and entertainment for male and female veterans of all ages and conflicts.

It’s a scene that the VFW, considered the nation’s largest and most active organization advocating for military veterans, is burnishing as several hundred thousand of its mainstay members – World War II veterans – die each year.

"We have to battle that perception that we are an old man’s club," said Lynn W. Rolf III, a 36-year-old Iraq war veteran and the commander of the Leavenworth post. "We have to transform ourselves or we won’t survive."

Since its peak membership in 1992, the VFW’s ranks have fallen from 2.17 million to 1.49 million nationwide. About 500,000 of its members are above the age of 80 while just about 100,000 are under the age of 39.

VFW membership director Matt Claussen predicts the organization’s membership will bottom out at 1.3 million. He says diversification is key if the group is to maintain its clout in the fight for veterans’ benefits and entitlements in Congress.

Claussen says the group must strive to repeat its success at Leavenworth, as well as at other progressive posts; the chapter at Fergus Falls, Minn., was last year run by a 28-year-old veteran, and a post near Buffalo, N.Y., has a primarily female membership.

Former servicewomen and younger vets are "going to be the base of the foundation of the organization," he said

Younger vets had struggled to be accepted by the old boys’ crowd for decades.

John Barrett said the WWII vets at an Alabama post treated him with such disregard when he returned from Vietnam that he turned his back on the organization back in the 1970s.

"They said it wasn’t a real war, that we just went over there and messed around, that we were nothing but a police action and we didn’t see what they called ‘real combat,"’ Barrett said. "They called us ‘baby killers,’ and they didn’t feel like we should even be in their organization."

When Rolf walked through the door at the Leavenworth post in 2007, he found a bunch of old-timers drinking at the bar.

Sure, they understood combat and all the things that are hard to explain to people who haven’t been there.

But Rolf, who had been drinking too much and had been struggling with bad memories of the war in Iraq, said members seemed more focused on what kind of liquor to stock at the bar than with providing support for returning troops and their families.

"It was a tough atmosphere," Rolf said. "If it didn’t affect the home itself, the post, they didn’t want to hear it."

So Rolf enlisted his veteran friends, and they led what he describes as a "coup."

Now the post hosts parties for the children of deployed soldiers, has organized a motorcycle rally to raise money for the families of deploying troops, offers resume-writing classes for service members’ spouses and provides babysitters during post functions. Members even mucked together to clean up the home of a soldier who was deployed when his house was inundated with floodwater.

Barrett, who rejoined the VFW in November, says there has been a sea change at the Leavenworth post.

"I like this," he said. "This is good because you come in here and you see younger vets and you see older vets, even some old, old veterans."

As the leader of the post at Leavenworth and district commander of 19 other posts in northeast Kansas, Rolf – whose favored tipple these days is Mountain Dew – has not only fronted efforts to modernize and diversify the organization. He also badgers local media for coverage, promotes the Leavenworth post through Facebook and, perhaps most revolutionary of all, has actively recruited female members.

Forty-seven-year-old Cathy Fields, one of three women to hold leadership positions at the post, says she feels accepted, although her family had trouble understanding her attraction to the organization at first.

"Our biggest fight, especially bringing in women, is the perception," Fields said. "My dad said, ‘Why do you want to go down to the VFW and drink with a bunch of old men."’

David W. Jones, an 85-year-old World War II veteran who was the Leavenworth post commander about 20 years ago, is happy about the influx of younger members. But he wonders how female vets balance their time, between their careers, families and the VFW.

"They’ve got their kids to take care of, they’ve got their families to take care of. Nowadays almost all women are working," Jones said. "It’s not like when my wife and I were young. She stayed home and took care of four kids and made the pies for the pie suppers and things. Now, it’s different."

Marlene Roll, who helped form the woman-focused post in the town of West Seneca, N.Y., near Buffalo, said some posts don’t do much to make women feel welcome. She’s heard the stories of women bringing their discharge papers in, only to be told to go to the Ladies Auxiliary.

"I think they like their little men’s club," Roll said, "but that’s not what the VFW is about."


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