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Losing Ground: Dearborn Veterans Groups Face Dwindling Membership

Like many veterans groups, Dearborn’s posts are having difficulty attracting younger servicemembers.

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.

Phillip S Smith November 10, 2011 at 12:06 PM
Mollie Nothing on the Marine Corps League mentioned, its the one you were not aware of that exists in Dearborn on 4131 Maple Dearborn, the one that assists the Marine Corps Toys for Tots Program, and has been around Dearborn since November 1, 1940 originated by Mayor Orville Hubbard when he was Mayor Phil Smith
Phillip S Smith November 10, 2011 at 12:07 PM
Another article might be the 236th year of the U,.S. Marine Corps November 10th, 2011.
Robert Seeley November 10, 2011 at 01:38 PM
Excellent article. Thank you for taking the time to talk about this issue. The Dearborn Allied War Veterans, whose memorial was yesterday's photo quiz, does alot of great things for this city, among which are the Memorial Day Parade and the Flag Burning Ceremony in June. This organization is made up of people from all of the veterans organizations in Dearborn. Veterans organizations that also exist, but are not mentioned here are the PLAV (Polish League of American Veterans) and AMVETS (American Veterans of WWII and Korea, though they accept any war veteran) who meet at the O'Kelly Knights of Colombus. If you are a veteran and currently do not belong to one or more of these worthwhile organizations, please stop by one of the posts and talk to some of the members. You will surely make a friend, have a new network, and find a home where your voice will always be heard.
Lee Jacobsen November 10, 2011 at 06:14 PM
Of course, the big picture is to have these groups dwindle to nothing with respect to membership, as, to use a 'tired' phrase, we seek 'World Peace'. Experience is always an asset, and perhaps some of the groups experiencing lower membership can attach to the newer Afghan and Iraq groups, and offer their wisdom and experience. All of these organizations serve a great need, and should be thanked.
Molly Tippen November 10, 2011 at 06:14 PM
I'll make a not of it, Phil. If you have any ideas you can always e-mail Jessica -- she will make the decision regarding out coverage. Thanks for posting, and have a great Veteran's Day.
Christopher Zahnd November 11, 2011 at 04:37 PM
I left the American Legion because it was full of miss informed members about how our local members of congress voted on issues that helped veterans. In Northern California our members of congress all received A's and B's during the 109th congress by Iraqi Afghanistan veterans association report card. All the F's were republicans and A's were democrats. Yet the membership I belonged to called our local congress members the three witches. My guess is there is a rise in membership in Veterans for Peace and Iraqi Afghanistan Veterans Association.
Bill November 11, 2011 at 04:52 PM
Not just in Dearborn, everywhere. The American Legion, Amvets, VFW and Eagles were the product of about 12 million 'boys' coming back from WWII, and that's all over now. God bless every one of you guys who fought in that war -- my father came back whole but his soul was gone, he needed a dark bar and a cold beer to keep the horrors at bay. There are far fewer modern day vets and they don't necessarily flock to a fraternal club after work and on weekends, there's a lot more going on in the world for Joe Dokes than there was 50 years ago. That was then and this is now.
Judith November 11, 2011 at 06:04 PM
I am very much sympathetic with the problem. I participate in the Veterans' History Project (representing my father, a WW2 veteran). At the last breakfast held every year around Veterans' day was there only one Viet Nam veteran and not a single veteran from any of the military branches since Nam. If you haven't heard of the Veterans' History Project, google it! It's an absolutely marvelous program that allows vets to tell their stories and have their stories made a permanent record at their local libraries, and possibly also at their state libraries and/or the Library of Congress. All of our vets are heroes, whether they fought on the front lines or stayed stateside doing the work that helps the military run smoothly. I thank them and bless them all, those with us and those who are are only memories.
Naturesson November 11, 2011 at 06:43 PM
I'll give you some reasons we don't participate....No one since WWII has fought in a war that was really justified. Certainly from the Viet Nam fiasco the vets know we were duped. Another thing....if the members of a lot of vet groups are as myopic and right wing conservative bigots as the ones I have encountered in 4 cities here in California there will never be any younger members. My generation prefers to join organizations such as Veterans for Peace. There are no glorious wars to celebrate.
Vince November 11, 2011 at 06:44 PM
There are a generation of people who are veterans who served between Vietnam and the Gulf war who aren't eligible for the VFW because they didn't serve in a War. Granted, they can join the American Legion, Amvets, and such but the VFW loses out on a number of vets because they aren't "war vets. Perhaps the VFW should look at a type of membership that would include those who weren't in actual war zone.I served during the Vietnam era but because I wasn't in country, I wasn't able to join the VFW. I did join the American Legion and am a proud member of American Legion Post 229, Rural Retreat Va. The Legion was and is there for me and I am very grateful
Judith November 11, 2011 at 06:56 PM
No one celebrates any war, Naturesoon! But we should be celebrating those who served in the wars. Just because a war was unpopular doesn't mean that the veterans of that war should be disrespected. Try looking up the Veterans' History Project and see if there are any interviewers in California. Because none of the veterans I know celebrate war of any kind and every one of them would be happy to join Veterans for Peace!
Judith November 11, 2011 at 07:00 PM
Korea wasn't a "war" either, Vince. But the Veterans' History Project has many Korean vets participating! Look into it. And many of those vets never served overseas and, like you, aren't elegible to join the VFW. And may of the vets were National Guard and Coast Guard! But they are not excluded from the Project. In fact, that's why the project was started, I think -- to give voice to those veterans who have never been given a voice before, along with recording their stories for future generations. Give it a try!
Tyler November 11, 2011 at 07:01 PM
About eight years ago, I moved from California to Mohave Valley, AZ, and soon after visited VFW Post 404. As a teenager I had served in Vietnam as an Air Force enlisted man, and I was on reserve duty as a naval officer officer during the first Gulf war. My foremost concern was whether I could fit into a post that was almost entirely Republican. I am a Democrat and hold primarily (though not entirely) liberal views on most subjects. During my visit, I sat down with the post commander and asked him point blank: In his opinion would it be possible - would it be acceptable - for me to express competing ideas in the presence of other members? (For example, how would the others react if I said I was a pacifist?) His answer was no. I left and never went back.
Don Burke November 11, 2011 at 07:05 PM
I was in the Navy for six years from 1958-1962 and left with a HD.tried to join AL and VFW and bouth would not take me as a member.
mike November 11, 2011 at 07:16 PM
Its not just the VFW many of us chose between the VFW and the American Legion, my post 370 in overland park kansas was once the biggest in the state, now at 60 im one of the young guys, and the Post is in such financial trouble that im arafaid it's days are numbered,numerous things like tax /property/ burden and the fact that the land that was once rural is now Prime resedintial and commercial property are dragging the post down,,im the Kid on the honor guard that does honors at Vets funerals, i can see the day when there are no one to do this service,, sad days for the orginizations indeed
ED November 11, 2011 at 07:25 PM
I might be wrong, but it seems that fraternal orginizations in general are withering away. You don't hear much about the Elks, the Moose, the Rotary Club or such anymore. They may just be part of a generation that won't be around much longer.
Judith November 11, 2011 at 07:31 PM
For everyone's information -- the Veterans' History Project has nothing whatsoever to do with VFW, American Legion, Amvets, or the like. In fact, the Project would like hear from those veterans who have had bad experiences with those organizations. Not only does the Project want to record your "war stories," but want to know how the wartime experiences affected your life after your return home! All are welcome to participate.
Bill Jenkins November 11, 2011 at 09:26 PM
I quit the American Legion after 45 years because of their total absence at The James A. Haley VMC here in Tampa Fl. I wrote many letters to all levels inquiring why they offered no services at one of the largest VA Hospitals in America. I never once got a response so after two years I quit. It didn't stop them from their continual plead for money though. The DAV has a remarkable presence in this area.
Jerry Kelley November 11, 2011 at 10:16 PM
I have been through all of them and they are for show. They help only a very few people that they or someone know... The bottom line just like the VA... They really don't care...

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