The Veterans of Foreign Wars celebrated its 120th anniversary this year by adding 25,000 new members to the national roster. But Buffalo’s VFW Post 2469 is continuing to lose membership.
That decline is mainly due to losing members to time, as World War II and Korean War veterans pass away. The younger generation of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been reluctant to join the VFW. And local membership numbers are reflective of the smaller military membership. In the past five years, the membership of Post 2469 has dropped from 136 to 86, according to retired 1st Sgt. John Zorbas.
“Just in the Army during WWII, there was 8 million soldiers,” Zorbas said. “That’s just the Army. That’s not including the Navy or the Marine Corps.”
According to the National WWII Museum, over 12 million Americans were in the U.S. military at the end of WWII. Of that number, 73%, or 8.7 million service members, served overseas.
“So, we’re not at those numbers anymore. But that’s one part of the puzzle,” Zorbas said.
Despite attempting to change the culture of the organization from a bar-type atmosphere to a more family-friendly organization committed to the care and advocacy of veterans, the VFW membership numbers continue to decline.
“That’s probably due to the difference in the social fabric,” Zorbas said. “They hang out with their friends online through Facebook and Twitter. They don’t necessarily need to go down to a VFW or American Legion post to hang out with their Army buddies.
“I think it has more to do with society and the way the younger generation interacts with each other than it has to do with people actually wanting to join an organization. A lot of them will join, but they won’t be active members; they just socialize differently.”
The generational gap felt between veterans is nothing new. Many returning veterans don’t want to infringe on an organization that they feel belongs to their heroes – the veterans who returned before them, according to VFW Post 2469 Commander Doug Brothers.
Brothers returned from Vietnam and chose not to join the VFW at first, until an old WWII vet named Charlie Brown convinced Brothers to attend a meeting.
“When I went down there, I did feel a generational gap between the WWII and the Korean vets from the Vietnam vets” Brothers said. “I didn’t want to come in there and act like I had some kind of say when these WWII vets are there.”
But Brothers was welcomed and learned that the veterans before him wanted and needed his input. Brothers wants all veterans to feel welcome and know that they do have a say in the VFW. He makes an effort to ensure that they have a voice and an organization of their own.
“I think just making sure that our younger vets know that they are welcome there at the VFW, and I think we’re moving in that direction right now. But it’s a slow process, that’s for sure,” Brothers said.
Post 2469 is using new group activities, such as “recoil therapy,” to try to reach vets that they may not otherwise. Recoil therapy involves VFW members who gather to fire weapons they may have used during their service time. During those moments, veterans may share experiences with each other that they might feel they can’t share with anyone else in their life, Zorbas said.
For the newest generation of service members who return home from Iraq and Afghanistan, technological advancements they grew up with give them a communication advantage over veterans of the past.
At the conclusion of past wars, service members were required to handwrite letters or make expensive long-distance phone calls to stay in contact with those they served with overseas. Now, contacting an old war buddy is as easy as sending a text or jumping on an Xbox to play a game together while catching up, Zorbas said.
“Everyone is hanging out on “Call of Duty” (a well-known military-themed video game). You can hear them in real time and talk to them every night,” Zorbas said. “The warrior culture hasn’t changed that much, but the mechanics of how we communicate have changed how we interact.”