BANGOR — Retired Navy veteran Ashley Wilson, who served two tours in Iraq, said joining the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 3381 in Old Town gave her something every veteran needs — understanding.

“Everyone has the same mindset,” she said over a beer inside the darkened post lounge. “You have that common ground and that common ground connects you. Plus, the beer is cheap.”

Wilson, 28, retired from the Navy in January 2012 after eight years and is now a University of Maine student. She is also something of a rarity in the ranks of the venerable military clubs, such as the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Marine Corps League and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which are are filled with members in their 60s, 70s and 80s.

As the years pass, these organizations that fought on Capitol Hill for the creation of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs and the G.I Bill and continue to fight for veterans services are slowly shrinking.

Membership in three of the four national veteran groups are decreasing both in Maine and nationally, with the Disabled American Veterans seeing small increases in recent years, according to club statistics.

“I’ll take any advice you have on how to grow our club,” Hermon American Legion No. 200 Commander Larry Davis said recently at a monthly bean dinner at the Hermon Fire Station, which attracted a small group of older local regulars.

The American Legion of Maine started 2014 with 19,201 members. Even though it added 390 new members last year, there was a net loss of 797 members as World War II and Korean War veterans pass away.

“I’m getting old. I’m in my 60s and I need [younger veterans] in here to take over,” said Keith Daggett, commander of American Legion Post No. 75 in Old Town.

The DAV’s John F. Kennedy Chapter No. 6, which moved nearly three years ago to Bangor, has grown to approximately 1,200 members. Even with that big membership number, only 10 attended the April monthly meeting.

“The older people are dying and nobody is there to take their place,” said Davis, who at 65 is one of the younger members of the Arnold R. Kelly Post in Hermon. “I’m almost the youngest puppy in the group. This is not just us. This is happening all throughout the American Legion.”

The numbers

The Veterans of Foreign Wars of Maine has about 9,000 members, down 800 from last year despite recruitment efforts, according to Steve SanPedro, the state membership chairman. Several units have closed or consolidated, such as posts in Lisbon and Long Island.

“They’re slowly closing,” SanPedro said. “Last year, we consolidated three posts and we’re working on our second one already this year.”

National membership in the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which marked its 100th anniversary in September 2014, has been decreasing ever since it peaked at 2.5 million in 1992. Current membership is around 1.3 million, with the average age of members nearly 70.

One explanation, according to SanPedro, is that “we’re one of the hardest groups to enter” because veterans must have served overseas to become a member.

Another is the perception that the club is only “older people drinking, smoking and telling war stories,” SanPedro said. “We do a lot more. In my [region] we have 10 posts and only two have cantinas. It’s not like every post has a bar.”

Data for the national American Legion in March showed 1.7 million members, a decrease of 38,225 from 2014. At its peak in 1946, Legion membership was 3.3 million. The organization turned 96 on March 15.

Legion membership is open to men and women who served in active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces during specific periods designated as “war time” by Congress, but the group also has an auxiliary for family.

The Marine Corps League of Maine has “a steady” 390 members with new members offsetting the eight who died last year, according to Department Commandant Gary Laweryson. There are about 85,000 League members nationwide, he said. The group includes associate members from other branches of the military.

“I just joined the Marine Corps League [in Bangor]. I’m one of the youngest members and I’m 72,” said Brewer resident and Army veteran Charles “Dusty” Fisher, a former state representative who joined the League as an associate member.

Disabled American Veterans is one military club that has seen a small amount of growth, but the age of its membership means change is on the horizon.

An average 640 World War II veterans die each day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Disabled American Veterans is seeing the trickle down effect “with more than 3,000 Disabled American Veterans members passing monthly,” Anthony Baskerville, national DAV membership director, wrote in his August 2014 annual report.

“Time takes it’s toll,” Baskerville said Thursday.

The 1.28 million-member Disabled American Veterans, founded in 1920 by disabled veterans returning from World War I, is a nonprofit charity dedicated to helping disabled veterans and their families. The group had 1.22 million members in 2013. Maine currently has 6,879 Disabled American Veterans members, an increase of 96 over the 2013.

“We don’t have bingo, we don’t have a bar and we don’t have a dance floor,” said Jim Gehring, adjutant of the Disabled American Veterans Smart-Ricker No. 10 in Presque Isle. “All we do is help veterans and veteran families.”

He went on to say that each veteran’s club offers something different, supporting veterans and communities in their own ways.

“There is something for everyone,” Gehring said.

Not ready for parades

The experience of Vietnam veterans, versus those of World War II or Korea, is viewed as contributing to the struggles of veteran organizations.

In Old Town, VFW post Commander Brian Hanson recalls a dark time in the country’s history when returning Vietnam veterans were shunned by the public.

Now, Vietnam veterans in the Old Town club are making it a point to welcome younger veterans from Desert Storm, Afghanistan and Iraq. “The Iraqi war is probably not the last war we’re going to have,” Hanson said. “We need to be here for the next generation.”

Yet that next generation is not necessarily ready for that club experience. Retired Army Ranger Joseph Miller, 33, has three tours in Iraq under his belt and sees the “value” of joining a military club for the camaraderie, but he just hasn’t found one yet that fits his needs.

“It takes you a few years to realize you need a community,” said Miller, who lives in Old Town. “When we get out we’re thinking education, getting a job.”

While he understands his family and the public’s desire to thank him for his service, Miller said war is “not all positive” and leaves scars, some that are not visible. “You want to move away from that time in our life … but it’s always going to be with you,” he said.

Miller joined the 82nd Airborne Division as an infantry officer, became an Army Ranger and jumpmaster, and retired in 2008. He now openly admits to having post-traumatic stress disorder and having considered suicide.

In his case, Miller added, he is just not ready to celebrate his service. “I don’t think our generation is ready for parades. I know I’m not,” Miller said. “Maybe that takes time.”

Experts in veterans affairs and post-traumatic stress disorder know where Miller is coming from, but also stress the value and importance of community connections.

Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who specializes in treating combat veterans was the keynote speaker at the Maine Military and Community Network’s conference held recently at the University of Maine. He said community plays a huge role in a successful homecoming.

Providing a place for soldiers, airmen, Marines and others to gather and feel safe, “is why there are VFW and Legion halls,” Lt. Col. Darryl Lyon of the Maine National Guard said.

A ready community exists within the walls of veterans’ organizations and it’s never too late to sign up, as evidenced by Orland resident Ron Bemis, 52, who just joined the Marine Corps League, Bangor Detachment 1151.

“I wanted the chance to get together with a bunch of guys — a bunch of Marines — that feel the same way I do,” said Bemis, who served between 1966 and 1970. “You kind of miss that when you’re not there.”

‘It got me through’

Safety and community are important issues, but to attract younger veterans, these organizations also may have to consider another factor: modernity.

After seven years out of uniform, Miller is looking for a military club that fits his active lifestyle.

“I find the biggest thing keeping me away isn’t the value, it’s the way the American Legion has social events where I wouldn’t find any enjoyment,” Miller said. “They’re old people. I think they could modify it a little bit.”

Miller is now a University of Maine graduate student who is studying to be a history teacher. He was once the ROTC instructor of UMaine’s Black Bear Battalion, and said health and the military go hand-in-hand.

“One time, one of them asked me why we weren’t joining and I was pretty frank with him. I said, ‘Stop smoking.’ We’re in our 20s and care about our health,” Miller said. “Stop playing bingo and expect people our age to come. Maybe get some microbrew. It’s not anything revolutionary.”

Once inside an organization, though, younger veterans can find what they need.

Sgt. Thomas Hayden, of the Maine Army National Guard 251st Engineer Co., is a former active duty soldier who turned to Wilson, a fellow UMaine student, when grieving the loss of a friend and fellow soldier. She brought him to VFW Post 3381 in Old Town earlier this year.

“This is the first time I can talk as a soldier,” the Litchfield man said while sitting inside the Main Street pub. “The middle of January was kind of a hard time for me. I lost a really good friend.”

His friend, Spc. Jose A. Torre, Jr., 21, of Garden Grove, California, had died Jan. 15, 2011, in Baghdad after insurgents attacked his unit with a rocket-propelled grenade.

“It got me through so I became a member,” Hayden said, speaking for the first time about why he joined the post. “It’s supportive in the fact that … everyone kinda knows something civilians don’t understand.”

Wilson, who brought Hayden to the post, now serves at its quartermaster, or chief financial officer. She admits being a member is “not for everyone,” but said walking through the door was the right decision for her.

“It kind of makes me feel like I have a second home,” she said.


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