Newer veterans groups reshape goals, fund-raising and VA
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 ad- vocates 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 contact with veterans – active-duty 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 sever- al 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 in- terests 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 Con- cerned 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 ForeignWars; American Legion; Paralyzed Veterans of America; AMVETS; and Vietnam Veterans of America, 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.
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.”
Members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars listen to President Donald Trump at their July convention in Kansas City, Mo. The larger, older veterans’ service organizations see their influence diluted as newer, smaller groups focused on post-9/11 veterans compete for money, influence and relevance.