Newer vets groups re­shape goals, fund-rais­ing and VA

Belleville News-Democrat (Sunday) - - Insight - BY JEN­NIFER STEINHAUER Chuck Hagel, for­mer de­fense sec­re­tary and Viet­nam vet­eran who is as­so­ci­ated with Hil­lVets DOUG MILLS NYT

WASHINGTON

For gen­er­a­tions, Vet­er­ans of For­eign Wars and Amer­i­can Le­gion posts have been as in­te­gral to Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal cul­ture as pan­cake break­fasts, town squares and state fairs. In ad­vo­cat­ing for vet­er­ans – among the coun­try’s most revered and cov­eted vot­ers – the groups have wielded un­ques­tioned power on Capi­tol Hill and in­side the White House.

Now, nearly a gen­er­a­tion af­ter the Sept. 11, 2001, at­tacks, the old­est and largest vet­er­ans’ ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tions – known col­lo­qui­ally as “the Big Six” – are see­ing their in­flu­ence di­luted, as newer, smaller or­ga­ni­za­tions fo­cused on post-9/11 vet­er­ans com­pete for money, po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence and rel­e­vance.

The newer or­ga­ni­za­tions re­flect cul­tural shifts in a smaller com­mu­nity of younger and in­creas­ingly di­verse vet­er­ans who are re­plac­ing the older, pre­dom­i­nantly male vet­er­ans – many of them hav­ing served be­cause of a draft for now long-ago wars.

The scores of up­starts in­clude Stu­dent Vet­er­ans of Amer­ica, which ad­vo­cates on ed­u­ca­tion and job is­sues; Team Red, White and Blue, which pro­motes ser­vice and “ca­ma­raderie” events; and Iraq and Afghanistan Vet­er­ans of Amer­ica, which fo­cuses on the spe­cific health and em­ploy­ment chal­lenges those who served in those two wars face.

Leaner and more fi­nan­cially ef­fi­cient than their pre­de­ces­sors, these newer vet­er­ans or­ga­ni­za­tions fo­cus on is­sues such as ed­u­ca­tion and job train­ing rather than on brickand-mor­tar meet­ing spa­ces for vet­er­ans to gather or on re­sources spent lob­by­ing in Washington.

In ad­di­tion, many of­fi­cials of the newer or­ga­ni­za­tions say, their goals are to in­te­grate vet­er­ans back into civil­ian com­mu­ni­ties where they feel mis­un­der­stood and have lost ties, while help­ing civil­ians who have had lit­tle con- tact with vet­er­ans – ac­tive­duty troops make up less than 1 per­cent of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion – un­der­stand their ex­pe­ri­ences.

As older vet­er­ans die, so, too, do the VFW halls, scores of which have shut­tered in re­cent years. While ac­cu­rate mem­ber­ship num­bers are hard to as­cer­tain be­cause many vet­er­ans pay dues to sev­eral or­ga­ni­za­tions, a shrink­ing vet­eran pop­u­la­tion over­all has caused mem­ber­ships to fall and some groups to re­struc­ture.

“The young vets are say­ing we need to do things dif­fer­ently with a dif­fer­ent em­pha­sis,” said Chuck Hagel, a for­mer de­fense sec­re­tary and Viet­nam vet­eran who is as­so­ci­ated with a small or­ga­ni­za­tion, Hil­lVets, that helps vet­er­ans find staff jobs on Capi­tol Hill. “The Viet­nam vet is a dif­fer­ent kind of vet than Afghan or Iraq War vets; they were draft vets and they wanted in and out. Most vet­er­ans to­day are mar­ried with fam­i­lies, and that means new de­mands, new in­ter­ests and new pres­sures.”

At times, the po­lit­i­cally pro­gres­sive lead­ers of some of the or­ga­ni­za­tions – many from the Viet­nam era – take po­si­tions that ap­pear out of step with more so­cially con­ser­va­tive mem­bers from pre­vi­ous wars. This has ir­ri­tated Robert Wilkie, the Vet­eran Af­fairs sec­re­tary, who views these as un­wel­come par­ti­san po­si­tions, said sev­eral agency and vet­er­ans group of­fi­cials.

Last April, Wilkie hosted a break­fast for vet­er­ans ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tions that in­cluded rep­re­sen­ta­tives not just of the tra­di­tional Big Six, but also the In­de­pen­dence Fund and Con­cerned Vet­er­ans for Amer­ica, which is fi­nanced by Charles and David Koch, who have backed con­ser­va­tive causes.

The Koch-sup­ported group was in­stru­men­tal in oust­ing the last head of the depart­ment. It has also been push­ing for more health care to take place out­side the VA sys­tem, with the first step be­gin­ning soon un­der a sweep­ing new law. Their voices were wel­comed by House Repub­li­cans as they passed the mea­sure this year.

The shifts, while per­haps in­evitable, leave some wor­ry­ing that the hard work of press­ing for the com­pli­cated and ex­pen­sive health care needs, and other is­sues, will lack a gen­er­a­tion of new lead­ers.

“These smaller groups don’t do pol­icy ad­vo­cacy while the Big Six have been car­ry­ing all the wa­ter,” said Kristofer Goldsmith, an as­sis­tant di­rec­tor for pol­icy and gov­ern­ment af­fairs at the Viet­nam Vet­er­ans of Amer­ica. “The av­er­age vet has no idea what these groups are do­ing on their be­half.

They have a free T-shirt from Red, White and Blue but don’t re­al­ize my 72year-old boss with em­phy­sema walks around Capi­tol Hill ad­vo­cat­ing for them on the GI Bill.”

The first large vet­er­ans ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tions, the Grand Army of the Repub­lic and the United Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans, arose af­ter the Civil War, with new ones form­ing af­ter each con­flict to serve vet­er­ans lack­ing ser­vices.

While there are thou­sands of non­profit vet­er­ans or­ga­ni­za­tions reg­is­tered with the IRS, the ma­jor­ity of power has been con­sol­i­dated among the Big Six: Dis­abled Amer­i­can Vet­er­ans; Vet­er­ans of For­eign Wars; Amer­i­can Le­gion; Par­a­lyzed Vet­er­ans of Amer­ica; AMVETS; and Viet­nam Vet­er­ans of Amer- ica, which was de­vel­oped af­ter Viet­nam vet­er­ans were turned away from other or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Out­side Washington, the con­trasts be­tween the groups is stark. Many of the old VFW halls remain out­posts of fel­low­ship over beer, while younger vet­er­ans pre­fer com­mu­nity cen­ters with health­ier and more prac­ti­cal as­sets, like Wi-Fi, child care and yoga classes. In many cases, so­cial me­dia has re­placed phys­i­cal spa­ces as a place where vet­er­ans con­gre­gate.

Many of the new groups steer away from lob­by­ing on Capi­tol Hill, and have turned in­stead to com­mu­nity ser­vices, run­ning races and other ac­tiv­i­ties meant not to con­nect vet­er­ans to one an­other as much as to the rest of the com­mu­ni­ties they have re­joined.

“The epi­demic of alien­ation and lone­li­ness in so­ci­ety writ large is mag­ni­fied in the vets’ com­mu­nity,” said Bana Miller, a spokes­woman for Team Red, White and Blue, which en­gages vet­er­ans in com­mu­nity ser­vice and phys­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties.

“Many post-9/11 vets served five, 10, 15 years, and they are look­ing for con­nec­tion and com­mu­nity and sup­port,” she said. “We are key to get­ting peo­ple out into their com­mu­ni­ties and tak­ing what they learned from their ser­vice, do­ing things to­gether shoul­der to shoul­der to build deep bonds with other peo­ple.

“Our or­ga­ni­za­tion is not nec­es­sar­ily in the ad­vo­cacy space,” she added. “We work to­ward men­tal health so­lu­tions via phys­i­cal and so­cial ac­tiv­ity.”

Tra­di­tional vet­er­ans’ or­ga­ni­za­tions say this new fo­cus does not re­place theirs.

“We get bills passed,” said Kayda Kele­her, as­so­ciate di­rec­tor of na­tional leg­isla­tive ser­vice for the Vet­er­ans of For­eign Wars of the United States. “We pro­vide fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance to cover bills for vet­er­ans who were at­tend­ing a col­lege that shut down. We pro­vide schol­ar­ships and fel­low­ship op­por­tu­ni­ties, our Na­tional Home for Chil­dren, and so much more. Those are our strengths and our legacy that will keep us around.”

‘‘ MOST VET­ER­ANS TO­DAY ARE MAR­RIED WITH FAM­I­LIES, AND THAT MEANS NEW DE­MANDS, NEW IN­TER­ESTS AND NEW PRES­SURES.

Mem­bers of the Vet­er­ans of For­eign Wars lis­ten to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump at their July con­ven­tion in Kansas City, Mo. The older or­ga­ni­za­tions see their in­flu­ence di­luted as newer groups com­pete for money, in­flu­ence and rel­e­vance.

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