At 45 years old, Veterans of Foreign Wars Lt. Archie Kelly Post 2107 Commander Richard Fleek is one of the youngest members of his post.
Fleek, who served in the U.S. Navy during the Gulf War and was named this year's Dearborn Veteran of the Year, said he believes his post may not exist in the next five to 10 years unless his membership can interest young soldiers to sign up.
“It’s a problem that is happening all over the country," said Fleek. "It’s not just us."
Membership Dropping Nationally, Locally
With soldiers coming home from the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, one would think that membership in veterans groups would be going through the roof. Instead, numbers show the opposite.
Last year, there were 1,445,550 VFW members in all 50 states, Washington, D.C. and 19 foreign countries. As of Sunday, there were 1,190,214, down nearly 18 percent.
"Some of these men and women have been deployed six times. They must live with the physical and mental scars of that for the rest of their lives. We veterans want to thank these young people coming home and make them feel welcome at our posts."
Dearborn’s largest veterans groups, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, are busily marking the contributions of soldiers in the city and beyond this Veteran’s Day, but the fact of the matter is that their ranks, which are made up mostly of those who fought in Korea, Vietnam and during the Gulf War, are slowly decreasing with time.
Fleek said VFW posts want to thank veterans of current wars and "make them feel welcome" as they come home.
“We have a lot to offer young members,” Fleek said. “We provide a lot of support to service members who are coming home, which for them can be a difficult transition.”
Phil Smith, the post commander for the American Legion Dearborn Post 364 and a Vietnam veteran who served in the Marine Corps, agreed that times have been better for the traditional veteran’s groups.
“I think young people have a lot to deal with when they come home; there’s work or trying to find work, and they often have young families,” he said. “But it can be a great help to talk to others about your experiences.”
Economics, Age Contribute to Problem
Smith said there are about 365 members in the Dearborn American Legion, versus about 450 just a few years ago. As older members fall ill, or pass on, younger members have not signed up. Those who fought in World War II are dying at the rate of 1,000 a day, according to a 2008 estimate from the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs.
Both Fleek and Smith believe one of the big reasons young people have not signed up with the Dearborn VFW is age.
“There is a big age difference between people who have recently served and those who served in Korea or Vietnam,” said Fleek, who acknowledged that some vets seemed old when he signed up. “But now, they’re my friends.”
But the issue is more complex than just age, said Robert D. Weiss, the state adjutant and quartermaster of the Michigan Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“During World War II, 15 million served in the arms forces, and today, less than 1 percent of the population serves,” he said. “That’s a big difference.”
Weiss also said veterans of the current wars are coming home to a bleak economic situation.
“You have a family that you need to take care of," he pointed out. "And if you didn’t have a job before you were employed, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get one soon after you return, at least in Michigan.”
Weiss added that the VFW has held job fairs for veterans, and that he’d like to see more activity in that regard from local posts.
New Groups for New Times
There are other groups that have been created more recently that cater to soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The new York-based Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America boasts more than 100,000 members nationwide. The group does not have local posts, however.
Smith said that although he hopes the VFW and American Legion can survive, he’s glad other groups can meet some of the younger soldier’s needs.
“I’m glad they’re going someplace,” he said.
In the meantime, Fleek said he believes the experience of being a soldier is a unique one, with commonalities that cross time, and generations, and that in the nutshell, soldiers still need one another.
“Our country is basically in two or three wars," he said. "Some of these men and women have been deployed six times. They must live with the physical and mental scars of that for the rest of their lives. We veterans want to thank these young people coming home and make them feel welcome at our posts."
You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing American Dream” from across the country at The Huffington Post.