Time taking toll on area veterans' groups

Posted: Sunday, May 28, 2000

Veterans groups are organizing Memorial Day observances this weekend as they have for decades. But whether they can continue such activities for generations to come is far from certain.

As our nation enjoys peace and prosperity, time is thinning the ranks of veterans' groups (See related story, page A-7).

"It's kind of a dying breed," said Fred Korpinen, post adjutant and finance officer for American Legion Post 20 in Kenai. "Without a military conflict, it's hard to get new members."

The Kenai Peninsula has a higher population of veterans than most places, said Jerry Books, satellite office coordinator at the Kenai Vet Center. He estimated that one in every four or five men on the peninsula is signed up with the Veterans Administration. Women are eligible under the same rules, and 63 are signed up. The actual number of veterans in the area is probably higher.

"If we all put on our uniforms, people would be surprised," he said.

Although only a fraction of the veterans join the service groups and an even smaller fraction participate actively, the groups have a high profile, especially during Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

But most of the veterans who will stand forward in uniform to fly the flag Monday served in World War II.

Soldiers who served in the world wars were most likely to join organizations such as the Legion, Amvets, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans. Now, those who served in Korea and Vietnam are aging, too. And the Gulf War and other recent military actions involved few people.

In general, younger veterans are fewer in number, less likely to join or, if they do join, less likely to participate in public activities, representatives of the central peninsula posts said.

Effects on the groups differ.

One big factor is a group's criteria for membership. Requirements for joining cover a spectrum.

Amvets is open to anyone who was in the military and obtained an honorable discharge. The American Legion is open to anyone who was in active service during a conflict, but not necessarily in the conflict. The VFW is open to those who served abroad in designated times and places of war. DAV is open only to people disabled due to wartime service.

Amvets, with the largest eligibility pool, seems to be most successful in drawing younger members.

"I don't think (aging) really has a lot of effects on us," said Laurie Dalebout, who works at the Amvets Post No. 4 in the Red Diamond Center. "We generate new bodies about as fast as we lose the old ones."

Her post is the area's youngest, first chartered 10 years ago.

Its roughly 390 members include people as young as 19, but most are in their 40s or 50s, she estimated.

The American Legion retains a robust membership but has felt the effects of aging, Korpinen said.

Internationally, the legion has 3.5 million members and is the world's largest service organization. In Alaska is boasts about 9,000 members, he said.

American Legion Post No. 20 in Kenai was founded in 1959. It has about 700 members. Half are regular members and the other half are divided between the women's auxiliary and the Sons of American Legion, open to the sons of eligible veterans, he said.

Korpinen estimated about six post members die per year.

"We are losing a lot of members -- World War II and Korean veterans," he said. "One passed away last week."

The high renewal rate and new members coming in keep the numbers steady.

At least a quarter of the membership served during recent conflicts in Granada, Panama and the Persian Gulf, and the Kenai post has the youngest membership of any in the state, he said.

The VFW, in contrast, still relies on its World War II stalwarts.

VFW Post No. 10046 in Soldotna opened 31 years ago. It has about 300 members, said Herb Stettler, the service officer and chaplain.

About half the active members served during World War II, he said.

"We're just going to have to keep the World War II vets alive," he said. "When they phase out, we are going to be limited in what we can do."

The DAV has the biggest problem with aging membership here.

The chapter, which serves the entire peninsula, has about 140 members, most from World War II or Korea, said member Glenn Schrader.

Fewer show up for meetings with each passing year. Many who were active are now too elderly or handicapped to travel, he said.

Saturday, the group held a special meeting in Kenai to consider its future. Chapter Commander Simon Carlough said that without enough active members to make a quorum, the group could lose its charter.

"We are kind of being closed down now," he said.

Generational differences are another factor changing the groups.

Books from the Kenai Vet Center noted that attitudes toward social clubs and what being a veteran means have changed. World War II inspired people, but later conflicts left mixed feelings.

"The World War II guy came back a hero; the Vietnam guy came back and hid," he said.

Stettler agreed that many vets from the 1960s are bitter about their treatment. They may join an organization, but they are less willing to put on the old uniform and parade it through town.

"They are not proud of that veteran status," he said. "They have kind of a phobia about appearing in public."

Books said Vietnam vets have their own organizations focusing on advocacy and political action rather than socializing.

All four groups are trying to recruit new members with mixed success.

The VFW's Stettler said that some middle-aged veterans are expressing interest in joining for the first time.

"We are gaining a little bit," he said.

Stettler and others expressed optimism that younger people will step in to carry on the community and member services as their elders pass away. But they are quick to appreciate that their dwindling ranks reflect peaceful times.

"I wish there were no more wars," said Disabled American Vets member Carlough. "I hate to see young kids going in there and being shot."

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