SHERIDAN — The oldest living World War II veteran is 111 years old. Richard Overton saw the Great Depression, the invention of the microwave and the terror attacks of 9/11. Today’s youngest veterans have never known life without cellphones.
Meeting the physical and social needs of such a wide age range of veterans is a challenge that has pinched the membership numbers of veteran service organizations like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars nationwide. After World War II, the American Legion had nearly 4 million members; it now serves approximately 2.3 million as the nation’s largest veteran service organization.
Reasons for shrinking membership vary, but one of most basic is this: older members are dying, and younger veterans aren’t joining.
That is the picture at its bleakest, and it’s true even in Sheridan. American Legion Post #7 adjutant John Bennett said six members have died in the last three months. The same is true at Sheridan’s VFW Post #1560, quartermaster Robert Skinner said. While the challenge is real, leaders at local veteran service organizations want to meet it so they can continue serving those who served their country.
“They [younger veterans] don’t realize what we can do for them, but even more so what they can do for us and for fellow veterans, future veterans,” American Legion Post #7 post commander Jim Schlenker said.
When James Argeris, 22, returned last fall from service as a combat engineer in Hawaii, he struggled with the transition from Army to civilian life. He had experienced structure and camaraderie for four years and came home to a wide-open schedule.
At one point, Argeris visited the VFW to seek help with paperwork for his veteran benefits. His first impression when he walked in was “a major older crowd,” he said. He didn’t feel like he belonged, but he wishes it were different.
“It’s what we want,” Argeris said. “We want a place where we can just have fun and let loose, but I felt like I must be so proper.”
Argeris enrolled at Sheridan College to regain structure and found support through the college’s veteran services department.
An informal survey sent to 54 student veterans at Sheridan College revealed similar feelings. Out of nine total responses, three indicated they were a member of a veteran service organization, but only one used VSO services or visited a physical location to find community.
The reasons given for not being a member were diverse: too busy with school, too busy with church and family, too disconnected from the older crowd of veterans, too much smoking and drinking at VSO canteens, too young and too female.
One respondent to the anonymous survey said he or she would “absolutely not” visit a VSO to find community.
“Veterans all have the same story and it’s time to move on from war stories and get back to living,” the 28-year-old Air Force veteran wrote.
Leaders of veteran service organizations suspected as much. The disconnect and lack of younger members has not escaped their attention, but they don’t know how to fix the issue.
Schlenker said the American Legion Post #7 invited younger veterans for a spaghetti dinner once, but no one showed up. It also tried hosting “heavier” bands for a younger crowd, but that drove older veterans away.
“I don’t know how to balance that out,” Schlenker said. “Trying to do one for the younger at the expense of the older, that is not fair to that older person who’s been here for ages.”
Skinner said the VFW has experienced similar limited response to outreach. The post does have a few members in their late 30s, two active Navy members and several female members; Skinner hopes getting younger members in the door will inspire more to follow.
Veterans united in service
One of the biggest misconceptions about places like the American Legion or VFW, Schlenker said, is that they are only bars and dance halls. Yes, both offer a canteen and cheap drinks, a place to gather with fellow veterans, but leadership wish younger veterans knew VSOs offered more.
“We were all young at one point, too,” Schlenker said, noting that he, too, felt shunned at a veteran service organization when he returned from serving during the Vietnam War era.
When Schlenker finally did join the American Legion, he found something he didn’t expect: help for himself through helping others. He thinks younger veterans would find the same — the chance to serve and protect again.
“We need their help to be able to do the things we are supposed to be doing,” Schlenker said. “We’re running out of energy, we’re running out of physical ability to do it. We need the younger veterans.”
Nearly 90 years separate America’s youngest veterans from its oldest. That is an age difference that can’t be ignored by veteran service organizations as they strive to meet so many different needs. However, one commonality will always bridge the gap: serving others and serving country.
“I took off my uniform in 1972, but I didn’t take off the oath,” Bennett said. “It’s a lifetime commitment.”
The American Legion was chartered in 1919 by Congress. The VFW traces its roots to the late 1800s. Both veteran service organizations were instrumental in establishing the Veterans Administration and continue to push for better care for veterans through a variety of programs and through advocacy in Washington, D.C.
The individual services offered through the American Legion and VFW are too numerous to list. However, both focus on veteran care, rehabilitation and transition; national security; patriotism; and programs for children and youth. Services include, but are not limited to:
Assistance with veteran benefits and claims for disabilityHelp navigating the VA health care systemLobbying Congress for active military and veteran concernsProviding military honors at funeralsComfort and counsel for veterans in VA hospitals Financial assistance for veterans and their families when in needCommunity programs to encourage the intellectual and social growth of America’s youth: essay contests, oratorical competitions, scholarships, Boys State, American Legion baseball, etc. Community service projects like Project Graduation in Sheridan which provides a safe place to celebrate after high school graduation ceremonies