VFW posts looking to grow younger
Mention "VFW hall," and some people will envision a smoky room with veterans drinking beer at a bar and recalling battles.
Today, however, VFW posts nationwide are reaching out to younger veterans in an effort to shave a few years off the face of the organization, said Randi Law, communications director for the VFW's national headquarters in Kansas City, Mo.
"There are still a lot of people we haven't connected with, and we'd like to connect with them," said Law.
Those connections are being made in New Hampshire, said Dana Hussey, state adjutant for the New Hampshire Department of Veterans of Foreign Wars.
"We're getting the younger ones now," said Hussey. "They're into family-related stuff, and as a whole, more of those types of activities are taking place."
That change is being seen at Derry Post 1617.
"I just swore in some younger guys," said post Cmdr. Carl Starosciak. "We do all right with our numbers. We lose some members each year, but we've been picking up new ones, too. I'd say over the last two years we've seen a lot of growth as far as the number of members go."
Starosciak was quick to credit the recruiting efforts of his senior vice commander, Justin Morrison.
"And the new guys are involved," said Starosciak. "They don't just come in to sit for a while. They want to be part of everything we do."
"I was hesitant myself the first time I walked in," said Morrison, a Derry resident. "I was expecting the dark room, being shunned by everyone in there. It was exactly the opposite; they were so welcoming. You just go in, sit down and talk with people who have been through everything you have."
Morrison, who served in the U.S. Air Force as an A-10 crew chief from 2001 to 2007, stationed in Florida, Las Vegas and South Korea, said the experience helped nudge him to take on a leadership role at the post. He said the type of camaraderie found in a VFW post can't be found in a typical pool hall, sports bar or coffee shop.
"It's also the networking that goes on," said Morrison. "Just talking to someone who already knows how to navigate the benefits system, who to talk to to get this, who to ask for to get that, makes life so much easier."
The VFW, a lobbying organization for millions of veterans, traces its roots to two groups formed in 1899 by Spanish-American War veterans. They merged in 1913 and adopted the name Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States. The group boasts 7,000 posts worldwide. In 1992, it had 2.16 million members, mostly World War II veterans.
Today, it has 1.5 million. Of that number, only 17 percent - 220,000 - are veterans of post-Vietnam war conflicts, according to the organization's website. In New Hampshire, there are 51 VFW posts. District 7, which includes Exeter, Salem, Portsmouth and Derry, has nine posts, the most of any district in the state.
Hussey said current membership statistics, valid through June 19, show numbers are down in every district this year compared with those in 2012.
Overall, statewide membership is at 8,048 members, down from 8,250 in 2012. District 6, which includes Manchester, Nashua and Bedford, has 1,724 members, down from 1,760 last year.
"We need another 200 recruits by early July to reach the membership level we had last year," said Hussey. "I think we have a good shot at it. Recruiting is working in places like Rochester, in Derry, in Pelham ... we lose members, mostly to death, but we are starting to get the Iraq veterans, the Afghanistan veterans. The numbers are close to staying even."
People interested in establishing a VFW post must gather the signatures of 35 combat veterans willing to become charter members. An application must then get approval from the VFW's governing board.
Once a post is opened, membership is open to men and women veterans who can document they served in a combat zone.
Morrison said his post has made an effort to spruce up its image.
"It used to look exactly like the dark, smoky room you might think a VFW canteen would look like," he said. "But a new coat of paint and cleaning the place up helps draw in some new faces."
Morrison has also tried to introduce new activities, including a motorcycle ride, while maintaining annual favorites such as Buddy Poppy sales around Memorial Day.
"I know when people think of the VFW, they think of the function hall, but that's just a way for a post to raise money," said Morrison. "The VFW is the people there, the programs they offer. It's talking to a stranger 34 years older than you are and realizing they went through the same things you did. And they're ready to listen.''
"Rochester hasn't had a canteen in over 30 years," said Hussey.
Hussey said many of the newer family-oriented activities the VFW is offering double as fundraisers. He said several VFW posts still run bingo games.
Others raise funds through ham and bean suppers. And two posts have started junior-girls units, in which daughters and their fathers work on patriotic activities such as ceremonies at the State Veterans Cemetery and visits to residents at the Veterans Home and VA Medical Centers in Manchester and White River Junction, Vt.