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Younger veterans not joining service groups

Carol Sigl is a member of AMVETS, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The 57-year-old veteran of Desert Storm, Iraq and active duty in Germany appreciates the clout the veteran’s groups give her and other vets in Washington, D.C., as well as the opportunity to meet and socialize with others.

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“The biggest benefit is making our voice heard as a membership through the states through to our national representation to give a voice to the veterans in Washington, D.C.,” Sigl said.

But the groups she belongs to are aging — their populations are made up of people who served in World War II, Korea and some from Vietnam and Desert Storm like herself. Not as many veterans in their 20s and 30s who served in Iraq or Afghanistan are joining.

“We have some that are, maybe because of a grandparent or an uncle or someone like that had encouraged them to join, but as far as being active, not really, no,” Sigl said.


helping veterans

The VFW was created by military men returning from the Spanish-American War in 1899 in an effort to get them the medical care they required after coming home. The American Legion was formed by World War I vets in 1919 for wartime veterans. AMVETS was created in 1944 by WWII veterans wanting to advocate on their own behalf.

The main purpose of all these groups was helping the men and women returning from war navigate their benefits through the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs, but technology and policy has made that task easier, especially for smartphone wielding young vets, said David Johnson, adjutant of the North Dakota Department of the American Legion.

“The struggle is, what do they need that they can’t get off their phone?” Johnson said. “And it’s the personalized service. If they’re a veteran and they need to go into the VA system, they can actually submit their own claims themselves, but the problem is they’re missing a lot of experience of how to actually process the system.”

Having a knowledgeable person assist with the paperwork ensures veterans get the most out of the system, Johnson said.

The refusal to join veterans’ groups didn’t start with Iraq and Afghanistan, said Lonnie Wangen, commissioner for the North Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs. Because of the atmosphere that developed in the U.S. regarding the happenings in Vietnam, many of those returning didn’t feel welcome and refused to identify themselves as veterans.

“With this war that’s going now we’re also seen a bigger influx of our Vietnam and Korean veterans actually coming in now,” Wangen said. “The ones who got the worst treatment — the Vietnam veterans — now they’re at that age where they’re running things.”

Those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have been welcomed back with open arms, but have wanted to get back to building the lives they left behind to serve their country, said Leslie Ross, Stark County Veterans Service officer.

“They’re trying to assimilate back into society, back into school, they’re trying to establish, families, they’re trying to establish careers,” Johnson said. “They’ll look at the Legion and they’ll say, ‘You know, this is just an old organization, a bunch of old guys,’ and they don’t understand or know what the purpose of the organization of a whole is.”

Often, time constraints limit community involvement, and young vets, like anyone else, must choose which groups their talents will serve best and will serve them best as well, said Ross, a veteran herself.

“It’s not that they’re unpatriotic and don’t want to join a service organization, they just don’t see the point,” Ross said. “People want to make a difference in a meaningful way, veterans always do. But they also want people to embrace veterans and civic responsibility and patriotism and sacrifice and all of that, but they don’t see that as needing to be a member of a service organization.”

Veterans’ groups can provide more than help navigating the VA system, Johnson said. Vets can form a bond that spans generations.

“There’s nothing like sitting down with a younger or older veteran,” Johnson said. “To sit down and just have a visit, it’s amazing how quickly that bond and the relationship is opened up and you just start talking.”

For some, that bond isn’t enough to make them want to commit to a veteran’s group, Ross said.

“We have common ground because we’re veterans, but we don’t have common ground on a lot of other things,” Ross said. “Those generational gaps — the divide is great, and we don’t often speak the same language, so we feel out of place, even in an environment that’s there to embrace us.”

Collegiate posts

The Montgomery G.I. Bill, which has allowed vets to go to college after serving, created the veterans’ home loan program and the VA medical system, was authored nearly 70 years ago by the American Legion, which, at the time, was filled with WWI vets anticipating the needs of those returning from Europe and the South Pacific, Johnson said.

“That’s really what we are, veterans helping veterans,” Johnson said. “WWI guys stepped forward because they knew the WWII guys were going to need help to assimilate back into society.”

Which is why his Fargo-based branch has helped open two collegiate posts of the American Legion, one at North Dakota State University last year and on Thursday the University of North Dakota Post 401 was dedicated.

“Those two campuses — the whole intent is to get them involved and understanding so we start feeding the pipeline,” Johnson said. “Get the younger ones coming in.”

The UND and NDSU posts are two of five collegiate-based American Legion posts in the country, Johnson said.

“Being on campus and having a place to sit down and interact with your fellow veterans does more to help these guys assimilate than it does sitting in their apartments or their dorm room,” Johnson said.

While combat veterans have a shared experience that someone who hasn’t been to war can’t relate to, swapping war stories is not the point of promoting veterans’ groups, on or off campus, Johnson said.

“Those guys that are deployed in combat zones, when they come back and they’re sitting in class and they’ve got the kid who’s 18-years-old whining because you’ve got to get up for an 8 o’clock class, it drives them crazy,” Johnson said. “They need to be able to sit with some people who understand the real world.”

UND has a veterans’ services office on campus, but its role is strictly administrative, a place for veteran students to make sure they’re getting the benefits they’re entitled to, director Carol Anson said.

“People who are getting the G.I. Bill, that’s what I do in this office, process their education benefits,” Anson said. “That’s only for students who are getting some type of educational benefit through the G.I. Bill program.”

The American Legion post will have a social component, Anson said.

“The American Legion is for all veterans on campus, whether they’re getting the G.I. Bill, anyone who served on active duty,” Anson said. “The Legion post would be to get all veterans together.”

There are more than 20 inaugural members of Post 401, which is open to anyone — students, professors and those in the community who otherwise qualify to be an American Legion member, Johnson said.

Hidden veterans

In North Dakota there are an estimated 65,000 veterans — 40,000 of them eligible for the American Legion, which boasts 16,500 North Dakotans in its membership, Johnson said. Approximately 1 percent of all Americans serve in active-duty military.

“We are out there,” Sigl said. “Sometimes you don’t see us because we blend in so well. I think people would be surprised how many veterans really are walking the streets, or are in Walmart or Dan’s.”

Female veterans blend in even further than their male counterparts, Ross said.

“Women don’t wear hats,” Ross said. “Women don’t identify themselves as veterans to the community, it’s not the first thing, the second thing, or the top 100 things they talk about when they meet somebody. Guys have a tendency to just gravitate.”

Generational difference

Veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan are coming home to a better system as each generation has improved the VA as they begin utilizing it, Wangen said. They’re also coming home with a different and more severe injuries than their predecessors.

“They’re having bigger issues with traumatic brain injuries — which is kind of a good thing because it means they’re surviving what our past veterans would have died from — but they’re coming back with their head being shaken up pretty hard,” Wangen said.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been more stressful because there is no “front line” as there has been in the past — it’s all “front line,” Wangen said. In addition, there’s less decompression time for vets coming back from these theaters.

“In past wars you had that — like in WWII sitting on a ship, or, you’ve got to figure months sitting somewhere in the European theater waiting to go home, seeing the peace and whatnot developing,” Wangen said. “Now you go right from a war zone and within 24 hours you’re back home.”

Veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are more aware of the services because the U.S. Department of Defense has made it a priority to provide transition assistance, Ross said. Many do a benefits at discharge claim form, enrolling them in the VA system.

“When you’re doing an exit physical when you’re on active duty, it’s both a VA physical and a military exit physical exam,” Ross said. “It’s a two-for-one. So that’s really increased the utilization of VA benefits.”

While they may utilize the G.I. Bill and other transitional benefits, many younger vets neglect to sign up for health benefits until they need it.

“A veteran who gets out the military right now should enroll immediately in VA health care,” Ross said. “They have the ability to be in VA health care without disclosing any financial resources or anything for five years. If you’re already in VA health care and you use VA health care once a year, you continually are enrolled in VA health care and you can never be removed from it, so you will always have health care.”

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
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