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.
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.
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.