I have seen the benefits of sitting down at my local Chief’s Club while I was on active duty and having a drink (does not have to be alcoholic) and conversation with one of my brothers and sisters in arms. We discuss not just work related issues but sometimes personnel issues. The Chief’s Clubs I have been to are very clean and welcoming.  It was a place I would go to for personal and professional growth.  You would not believe, how many problems were solved behind those doors. Having a place for senior enlisted leadership to go and discuss solutions to pressing problems at the deckplates and on shore stations was very important and remains important in today’s Navy.

So I walked into a local VFW one hot afternoon in Texas to try and find the same camaraderie and conversation I felt at the Chief’s Club. It looked like a smoke filled, dirty dive bar. I never been a fan of dive bars. I can’t find myself to sit and drink in a dark bar and risk throwing away everything I worked so hard to achieve in my life. I just believe it was not healthy place for me to be and the second hand smoke is definitely not going to be good for my asthma. One Saturday morning I decided to go to a VFW auction at the same place. I thought oh I’ll be okay I’ll be in the back room have breakfast and support the local VFW. The place was made up of mostly Vietnam and Korean War veterans.  I did not see any Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. I was only in the place 30 minutes and I decided to leave with my wife. We had to go home, change, and shower because we smelled like cigarette smoke. I remember complaining to my wife how the VFW needs to change in order to appeal to younger veterans.  The bond that existed during my time in the service did not exist anymore.

A few months went by and I decide to give the VFW a try.  I have just moved back east. I went to a meeting and joined for one year. I was not ready to become a life time member. They checked my DD-214 to verify I was a veteran and the meeting started. I was one of the youngest veterans in the place. Well this post does its best to stay very active. They still do good things for the community but I still feel out of place. It is still an older crowd and do not get me wrong you can learn a lot from older veterans. Between the 50/50 raffles, bingo, the bar, and the golf tournament, it takes a lot of work to keep the lights on. It does seems to have that old way of thinking. When I discuss a issue concerning state taxation of military retirement pay for working age veterans, I felt like it fell on deaf ears. It did not affect them, so they did not care.  They do reach out to do motorcycle rides and they do get together to send care packages and Christmas cards to servicemen and women deployed overseas.  Leadership is important at these organizations.  Even with this one post being active, I do not believe the message is getting through.  Just Google the VFW and the American Legion and you will find news story after news story on how these two veteran’s organizations is struggling to maintain membership.   

“With membership at 1.3 million — down from its 1992 peak of 2.1 million–the average age of  a VFW member today is over 70″

I watched a news piece on CBS during Memorial Day and a VFW member pretty much summed it up and said “In 20 years, we’ll be a dead organization unless we get the younger veterans involved.  Courting those younger veterans is their greatest challenge.  “The younger generation is not necessarily looking for a bingo night or a karaoke night or a smoky pool hall as I experienced in Texas.

I am also part of an another veterans organization that I think is doing a good job appealing more to younger veterans. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) started in 2004 by an Army Veteran named Paul Rieckhoff.  Most of their work is in Washington D.C. making their presence known to our elected leadership.   They use social media to get their message across and they operate entirely on donations.  To be a member, you do not have to pay dues, its free.  They have instituted many programs, such as one-on-one support for transition, career programs, and storm the hill.

On their website:  IAVA explains that Storm the Hill is IAVA’s signature leadership development program. Over the years, it has grown from a handful of veterans walking the hall’s of Congress into an annual event placing Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in more than 100 meetings with our nation’s leaders.  They have successfully fought for better body armor, secured advanced funding for VA health care, and continuously strengthened the New GI Bill.

The Big 6 Advocacy Priorities are :

  1. Combating suicide,
  2. recognizing and supporting women vets,
  3. defending the GI Bill,
  4. reforming VA,
  5. driving support and recognition of burn pit exposure
  6. empowering wounded veterans to utilize medical cannabis.

While I personally do not agree with the use of medical cannabis without more federal research to the benefits and pitfalls of medical cannabis.  I still believe they are doing a good job getting their message out. What I am most proud of is the She Who Borne The Battle campaign that IAVA instituted to recognize the service of women veterans, while improving access to care and benefits.  If my daughters decide to join the military, I want them to be treated with the same respect and have the same opportunities I have had.

The only negative is most of their outreach is online and their face to face meetings are only in 8 locations with the majority of the events in the Northeast.  I believe it is only in a matter of time they will grow and there is a big push for IAVA members to hold events in their local communities.

Veteran’s organizations are important.  The VA estimates that 7.3 percent of all living Americans have served in the military at some point in their lives.  Lets take that into prospective.  That only 7.3 percent of the population has a political voice in convincing our elected leaders to really address the issues that affect veterans today.  We have such a small voice.   Without these veteran organizations, we lose that strong voice on the hill and those hard earned benefits will slow get chipped away election cycle after election cycle.

In order to grow and stay strong–an organization has to evolve.  Without leading change, an organization will suffer a slow death of being irrelevant.

Shane is a retired Navy Chief and a former Deputy Sheriff. He now works in the aviation field ensuring the safety of the flying public. The views expressed here are his own personal views and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer.

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