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VFW and American Legion struggle to reach young veterans

Published: Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Sandy Bressner – sbressner@shawmedia.com)
American Legion Post 75 Cmdr. Dan Clark (center) conducts their monthly meeting with Paul Dailey (far left) and Leonard Pietrusiewicz (right) Monday night in Geneva.

At 52 years old, Mark Powell says he is one of the youngest members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts in St. Charles.

Powell – who helped revive the city’s Memorial Day parade several years ago after the older veterans “ran out of energy” and canceled it one year – said the lack of younger members doesn’t bode well for the VFW, which sold its building to the city this year.

“In two years if nothing changes, I think it will be the end of the VFW here in St. Charles,” he said. “You’ve got to have younger members joining these groups.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 25,400 veterans live in Kane County. Representatives of veterans organizations in the Tri-Cities reported their memberships total fewer than 200, but the number of active members vary depending on the function and time of year.

Dan Clark, commander of American Legion Post 75 in Geneva, said his organization boasts about 195 members, but membership declines each year, primarily because World War II veterans are dying.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to replace them at the same rate,” Clark said.

Bob Pennington, an 88-year-old World War II veteran who attended last month’s Veterans Day ceremony in St. Charles, said he wished new veterans would join the VFW and American Legion.

“We need fresh faces to keep the organizations going,” he said.

Clark, who waited to join the American Legion until his daughter was older, said he understands that young veterans likely are more focused on starting a family and a career than joining veterans organizations.

Other factors, such as the age gap between the younger and older veterans, might deter some away from the organizations, Powell said. He said a fresh perspective is needed to appeal to the younger generation.

“Unless something changes at the national level, I think these clubs – the doors are going to close one by one,” Powell said.

Clark suspects the traditional veterans organizations have been replaced by resources and communities online.

“I think veterans are less inclined to come to a brick-and-mortar facility,” he said. “We need to find the marketing tools that reach out to this generation.”

But perhaps the biggest obstacle in getting new members is not knowing the identities of the younger veterans, several local VFW and American Legion representatives said.

“There’s just no way to find the guys, either,” Powell said. “If we knew where 500 veterans were in St. Charles, we’d probably put together a campaign to reach out to them.”

For Powell and Dave Jordan, a veteran retired from the Naval Reserves, encouragement from WWII- and Korean War-era veterans prompted them to become active in veterans organizations, they said.

Jordan has belonged to American Legion Post 504 in Batavia for 16 years, he said, but he was just a paying member until about three years ago, when WWII veteran John Nuckles encouraged him to become more active.

“He would always come to our house every year to collect the dues,” Jordan said. “He finally got to the point saying, ‘Us guys are getting old. You youngsters should come to a meeting.’ ”

And so Jordan did.

In addition to contributing to the community, Jordan said, participating in a veterans organization is a good way to meet others with common experiences and interests. He said it can be a potential networking opportunity.

“Your civilian career could be enhanced,” he said.

Powell said a lack of participation in veterans organizations is part of a larger problem.

A few dozen St. Charles residents might attend the city’s Veterans Day celebration, he said. If the thousands of veterans in Kane County aren’t willing to come out and honor veterans on that and other holidays, he said, that’s part of the problem, too.

“The city bends over backwards for us,” Powell said, “but we don’t know how to inspire the 26,000 veterans in Kane County to come out and join us.”

A representative from the American Legion’s headquarters in Indianapolis did not return a phone call seeking comment about membership recruiting efforts. An email to the VFW National Headquarters was not returned.

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