VET­ER­ANS

The Washington Times Weekly - - National -

ex­er­cise equip­ment and play­grounds. Posts that don’t evolve, she said, face “an un­cer­tain fu­ture.”

The VFW’s lat­est push to re­cruit younger mem­bers will send troops who en­rolled in col­lege after the mil­i­tary to Capi­tol Hill to lobby for vet­er­ans’ needs with VFW staff.

The Amer­i­can Le­gion also is work­ing with stu­dents to re­cruit younger vet­er­ans by open­ing sev­eral posts on col­lege cam­puses over the past five years, said Matt Hern­don, deputy di­rec­tor of mem­ber­ship. Th­ese groups al­low stu­dents and fac­ulty who served to support one another and pro­vide help in search­ing for work.

Mr. Hern­don said stu­dent vet­er­ans who get in­volved in the Le­gion dur­ing col­lege may be more likely to con­tinue their mem­ber­ship and bring new ideas to posts after grad­u­a­tion.

But the or­ga­ni­za­tions also ac­knowl­edge that they need to do a bet­ter job of ex­plain­ing what they of­fer, in­clud­ing as­sis­tance with ben­e­fits claims, schol­ar­ships, grants, free calls home for de­ployed ser­vice mem­bers and ad­vo­cacy in Wash­ing­ton.

“Peo­ple are usu­ally sur­prised to learn how much of an im­pact the VFW has al­ready had on their lives,” Ms. Law said. “With­out the VFW, there would be no VA. There would be no com­pen­sa­tion, no ben­e­fits, no one to en­sure our vet­er­ans and mil­i­tary fam­i­lies are cared for after serv­ing our coun­try.”

VFW ser­vice of­fi­cers, who are fa­mil­iar with VA bu­reau­cracy and pa­per­work, can sub­mit forms on be­half of vet­er­ans, help file ap­peals if dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits are de­nied, or sim­ply of­fer ad­vice to those who want to file their own dis­abil­ity claims re­gard­less of whether the veteran be­longs to the VFW.

Over the past two years, more than 200,000 vet­er­ans have taken ad­van­tage of the help and col­lec­tively ob­tained almost $6 bil­lion in ben­e­fits from the VA, Ms. Law said.

Sgt. Pe­lak said his gen­er­a­tion is grate­ful for the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s lob­by­ing work on pro­grams such as the G.I. Bill, but that’s not enough to re­cruit younger vet­er­ans.

New or­ga­ni­za­tions

Mean­while, other or­ga­ni­za­tions have stepped up to lobby for post-9/11 vet­er­ans.

Lt. Cmdr. Sean Fo­ertsch, a Navy re­servist who served in Afghanistan, said younger vet­er­ans typ­i­cally don’t need ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tions to fight for the ben­e­fits they were promised. He said mil­i­tary per­son­nel have largely been spared from the bud­get cuts that have hurt other parts of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment be­cause of over­whelm­ing pub­lic support for troops.

Lt. Cmdr. Fo­ertsch, who de­cided not to re­new his Le­gion mem­ber­ship this year, said older vet­er­ans groups are “more in­ter­ested in be­ing a po­lit­i­cal player than ac­tu­ally ad­dress­ing the needs of vets.”

The groups that are popular with post9/11 vet­er­ans, he said, are more fo­cused on help­ing with rein­te­gra­tion into the com­mu­nity.

“That is where the mod­els of Team RWB and Ru­bi­con seem to gain more trac­tion with younger vets — they are fo­cused on the ‘who’ the veteran is as op­posed to the ‘what’ they get from” vet­er­ans or­ga­ni­za­tions, he said by email from Liberia, where he has just de­ployed to fight Ebola.

Bryan Al­lyn, a for­mer Navy petty of­fi­cer who served in Afghanistan, de­cided not to re­new his Le­gion mem­ber­ship after two years. He said the VA has ad­vo­cates to help him nav­i­gate the ben­e­fits process and he would rather cut out the mid­dle­man and do the work him­self.

A Le­gion mem­ber­ship still of­fers ex­clu­sive dis­counts, such as 20 per­cent off pre­scrip­tion drugs and sav­ings at ho­tels, but Mr. Al­lyn said other groups pro­vide ben­e­fits that may be more ap­peal­ing to younger vet­er­ans, such as VetTix.org, which gives free con­cert and sports tick­ets to vet­er­ans and their fam­i­lies.

“Ba­si­cally, I was pay­ing a fee but all I was get­ting was some ad­dress la­bels and … dis­counts on rental cars and stuff,” he said. “Other than that, there was re­ally noth­ing that was of ben­e­fit.”

Younger vet­er­ans say the prob­lem ex­tends even to how the groups com­mu­ni­cate. The Le­gion’s postal let­ters of­ten end up in the trash, Mr. Al­lyn said. In­stead, Team RWB and Team Ru­bi­con use so­cial me­dia, which con­nects large num­bers of vet­er­ans across the coun­try.

Older vet­er­ans said the tra­di­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions have a le­git­i­macy that can’t be con­veyed by hav­ing 10,000 “likes” on Face­book, and they fear law­mak­ers on Capi­tol Hill won’t take the new or­ga­ni­za­tions’ lob­by­ing as se­ri­ously.

Mr. Hern­don said the Le­gion is try­ing to use more so­cial me­dia such as Twit­ter and Face­book to com­mu­ni­cate with mem­bers, though he ac­knowl­edged it could do bet­ter. He said the Le­gion has sev­eral “cy­ber­posts” where vet­er­ans par­tic­i­pate in meet­ings and talk with other mem­bers on­line through chat rooms or video con­fer­ences.

The VFW’s Mr. Rolf said vet­er­ans should feel wel­come to join the old and new or­ga­ni­za­tions.

While at the Kansas VFW, Mr. Rolf worked with mem­bers of Team Ru­bi­con on tor­nado re­lief and knew it was a ser­vice group he wanted to join. After spend­ing a lot of time on the road and putting on some weight, Mr. Rolf joined the fit­ness-ori­ented Team RWB and has lost 75 pounds run­ning and par­tic­i­pat­ing in cross fit with the group. He now holds lead­er­ship roles in both of th­ese groups and said they need to work more with tra­di­tional vet­er­ans groups — and vice versa.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Chance Pel­lum is among the small per­cent­age of Iraq and Afghanistan vet­er­ans who have joined the Vet­er­ans of For­eign Wars. Many oth­ers want more than smoky bars and feel un­wel­come by Viet­nam-era vet­er­ans, who make up the largest por­tion of the VFW and Amer­i­can Le­gion mem­ber­ship.

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