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America's veterans organizations are losing ground

An American flag marks the grave of a fallen military member. As more and more aging veterans pass away, America's organizations for veterans are losing members faster than they are finding new ones.

When the newspaper printed an obituary on a World War II veteran, a young Randy Raasch never missed a word, finding inspiration from the Greatest Generation's actions in war and service to their fellow soldiers at home through work with veteran's organizations.

Raasch, 47, who grew up in Dickinson and now lives in Hettinger, chose to pay it forward when he returned home in 2007 after serving two years in Afghanistan by joining the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization in Hettinger.

Unfortunately, Raasch, the former military recruiter and quartermaster of the VFW in Hettinger, has been tracking an ever-decreasing membership since taking the post at the organization he loves.

"I recently took three people off of our rolls that were deceased, and I don't have three or four people to replace them with," he said. "I don't even think there has been a new member since me. I think it's probably because Facebook is starting to replace us, but the VFW does so much for the community, especially in high schools. Maybe it won't impact you, but the loss of VFW memberships will impact your children."

It's a sentiment felt across southwest North Dakota, where VFW and American Legion posts struggle to maintain active participants to keep up with sponsored events, like Legion baseball, patriotic essay contests in high schools and community parades on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.

"I'm fearful that in the near future, due to declining active members, we will not be able to support the community with ceremonies that we would support now," said Daniel Peterson, commander of American Legion Post 48 in Bowman. "I'm 44 and, by far, the youngest active member in our post. The average attendance at our monthly meetings is about six people. We have 80 members in the post, but they are not active."

There are 16,500 members in North Dakota's 215 VFW posts that each range in memberships from five to 1,000 veterans, said David Johnson with North Dakota Department of Adjunct for the Statewide American Legion.

In 1975, Johnson said the North Dakota Department of the American Legion reached an all-time high membership of more than 35,500 wartime and eligible veterans.

"Back then, an average World War II veteran could have been 50 to 65 years old, which is quite young in the scope of a veteran organization," he said. "We would still have had significant membership from World War I veterans, and a Korean War veteran would have been 35 to 40 years old and still very accustomed to the patriotic values of the post-World-War citizenry."

But with the death of the nation's only remaining World War I veteran last year and the number of World War II and Korean War veterans dwindling daily, Johnson said American Legion membership now draws heavily on Vietnam vets.

"In 1975, these veterans were 20 to 35 years old and struggling to get the Veterans Affairs system to support and recognize disabilities caused by a huge military industrial machine," he said. "Today, these veterans are now 60 to 75-plus years old and have become the leaders of our organizations, which each year in North Dakota loses approximately 500 veterans to death."

The American Legion in Beach is a perfect example of what the loss of veterans means, said Harvey Peterson, a member of the Beach organization and chairman of the North Dakota Foundation Board for the American Legion.

"Our membership is steadily declining as veterans pass or move away and our membership will soon be less than 100 -- the lowest since the end of World War II -- and we see few younger vets joining the Legion," he said of his post. "Nationwide, only about 1-in-10 eligible veterans are members of the American Legion and we are the largest of the veterans organizations."

The loss puts increased pressure on American Legions and VFWs to recruit younger veterans to become members.

Rep. Alan Fehr, R-Dickinson, who serves as commander of American Legion Post 3 in Dickinson, said the Legion is now transitioning from active membership by Korean and Vietnam wars veterans, and hopefully bringing more veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq into the organization's leadership.

However, Johnson said it isn't always easy to bring new veterans in, maybe because of stereotypes, age difference and even the methods of how previous and current wars are fought and managed, which have created a variance in the face of the veterans organizations.

"Passing the baton of leadership is sometimes much more difficult than it is said to be," Johnson said, even though it's a breeze to join.

Daniel Peterson said it's only a matter of finding out when the local Legion or post meets. Still, veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan aren't coming onboard.

"I believe it is a generation issue," he said. "It is a more different time now than when other Legion members first joined. After past conflicts, most families only had one working spouse, so the vet was able to volunteer more of their time, while the work at home was taken care of. Now, most households have two working spouses, and they just don't have time to volunteer as past generations did."

Sometimes, Johnson said, soldiers returning home today don't classify themselves as veterans, so joining VFWs or American Legions are never a consideration.

"The (National) Guard and Reserve forces may have been deployed into a combat zone or an area of direct support three, four, or maybe five times, but because they have never served in the traditional active duty they feel they don't qualify," he said. "These veterans -- men and women of all branches of service -- sometimes don't recognize themselves as being a veteran, especially the women in our military, which is very unfortunate."

A proud female veteran and former state commander for the VFW, Carol Sigl serves as both secretary for American Legion Post 180 in Richardton and as secretary/treasurer for VFW Post 7439 in Taylor. Sigl said she would "be happy to sign anyone up or direct them to the nearest VFW or Legion club."

"There are members but few working members and only a handful, if that, who attend meetings," she said of the organizations in Richardton and Taylor. "Richardton Legion has a post building and bar for special events, but there will come a time in the near future when the working few will not be able to provide bar coverage for a function."

Unfortunately, Sigl said decreased participation by the next generation puts the unique communities created by the American Legion and VFW at risk.

"It is a comradeship of fellow soldiers, airmen and Marines," she said. "In the VFW, it goes further than that. Each member knows that every member has left home and their loved ones to serve in a combat area in a foreign country."

Nonetheless, calls to the face-to-face camaraderie in the VFW and Legion haven't engaged new members in the Information Age.

"Technology has taken away some of the need to belong to an organization, whose primary purpose has been to disseminate information about benefits, veteran issues and be their voice in Washington," Johnson said.

Today's veterans can find information and carry on conversations online, but Daniel Peterson said nothing compares to the connection when veterans congregated at the Legion.

"The reason I joined was to continue to be part of the brotherhood of vets that served our country," he said. "You may not have served with them, but there is a bond between vets that you don't get any place else."