In search of ‘new blood’: Vets want latest sol­diers in­volved

The Washington Times Weekly - - National -

COLUM­BUS, Ga. (AP) — Jack Wag­n­er­was­wound­edtwi­ceinViet­nam, but in­stead of a hero’s wel­come upon his re­turn, he was ad­vised to ditch his uni­form to avoid the wrath of anti-war pro­test­ers.

“That made a lot of Viet­nam vet­er­ans go in the closet. They didn’t want to be la­beled as baby killers,” said Mr. Wag­ner, the na­tional com­man­der of the Com­bat In­fantry­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion.

Af­ter be­ing dis­par­aged by demon­stra­tors, Viet­nam vet­er­ans also found them­selves shunned by some World War II and Korean War vet­er­ans who be­longed to the Amer­i­can Le­gion, Vet­er­ans of For­eign Wars and other lead­ing vet­er­ans groups.

“All we wanted was for some­one to say, ‘Wel­come Home,’ ” said Mr. Wag­ner, 59, of Cape Coral, Fla.

With World War II vet­er­ans dy­ing at a rate of 1,100 per day and many Korean War vets now in their 70s, it’s Viet­nam vet­er­ans such as Mr. Wag­ner who have taken the helm of some of the na­tion’s lead­ing vet­er­ans or­ga­ni­za­tions. They know the im­por­tance of ex­tend­ing a wel­com­ing hand to the latest gen­er­a­tion of com­bat vet­er­ans: the Amer­i­cans who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Even though many of us may dis­agree on the way this war is be­ing han­dled, we are in to­tal sup­port of those young troops,” Mr. Wag­ner said dur­ing his 4,800mem­ber group’s re­cent an­nual con­ven­tion in Colum­bus, Ga.

The as­so­ci­a­tion, which lim­its its mem­ber­ship to those who earned the Army’s blue-and-sil­ver Com­bat In­fantry Badge, has stepped up its re­cruit­ing, par­tic­u­larly among those re­turn­ing from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nearly 24,000 sol­diers have earned the pres­ti­gious badge in Iraq, and 9,700 have earned it in Afghanistan. Yet de­spite of­fer­ing free, two-year mem­ber­ships, the group has only at­tracted 58 of them.

“We need new blood,” said Dan Sankoff, 76, the as­so­ci­a­tion’s na­tional mem­ber­ship of­fi­cer from Le­high Acres, Fla. “Our boys are dy­ing.”

The as­so­ci­a­tion has worked out deals with other vet­er­ans groups to swap ads and has started mem­ber­ship drives around Army posts and re­serve and Na­tional Guard units that have sent sol­diers to war zones.

The drives brought in 1,617 new mem­bers in three years — just not many Iraq and Afghanistan vet­er­ans.

Join­ing a vet­er­ans group is not a high pri­or­ity among young peo­ple, said Sankoff, a Korean War vet­eran. “They’re busy,” he said. “They’re mov­ing from place to place. They don’t get in­volved.”

Ralph Dula, the group’s na­tional ad­ju­tant, says ca­reer and fam­ily re­spon­si­bil­i­ties left lit­tle time for him to be in­volved with vet­er­ans groups un­til he was older. Now the 79-year-old Korean War vet­eran from Florence, Ala., is lead­ing a cam­paign to have the group rec­og­nized by Congress through a na­tional char­ter.

Other vet­er­ans groups have started pro­grams to sign up and as­sist younger vet­er­ans. AmVets spon­sored a re­cent job fair and sym­po­sium in Chicago that fo­cused on the needs of young vet­er­ans and at­tracted more than 1,000 peo­ple. The 200,000-mem­ber group has urged its lo­cal posts to boost mem­ber­ship by 20 per­cent next year.

As­so­ci­ated Press

The Com­bat In­fantry­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion, which has 4,800 mem­bers in­clud­ing Wayne Watts (left), Jack Wag­ner and Ralph Dula, has in­creased ef­forts to re­cruit young vet­er­ans of Afghanistan and Iraq.

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