COLUMBUS, Ga. – Jack Wagner was wounded twice in Vietnam, but instead of a hero's welcome upon his return, he was advised to ditch his uniform to avoid the wrath of anti-war protesters.
"That made a lot of Vietnam veterans go in the closet. They didn't want to be labeled as baby killers," said Wagner, the national commander of the Combat Infantrymen's Association.
After being disparaged by demonstrators, Vietnam veterans also found themselves shunned by some World War II and Korean War veterans who belonged to the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and other leading veterans groups.
"All we wanted was for someone to say, 'Welcome Home,'" said Wagner, 59, of Cape Coral, Fla.
With World War II veterans dying at a rate of 1,100 per day and many Korean War vets now in their 70s, it's Vietnam veterans like Wagner who have taken the helm of some of the nation's leading veterans organizations. They know the importance of extending a welcoming hand to the latest generation of combat veterans: the more than 1 million Americans who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"Even though many of us may disagree on the way this war is being handled, we are in total support of those young troops," Wagner said during his 4,800-member group's recent annual convention here.
The association, which limits its membership to those who earned the Army's blue-and-silver Combat Infantry Badge, has stepped up its recruiting, particularly among those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Nearly 24,000 soldiers have earned the prestigious badge in Iraq and 9,700 in Afghanistan. Yet despite offering free, two-year memberships, the group has only attracted 58 of them.
"We need new blood," said Dan Sankoff, 76, the association's national membership officer from Lehigh Acres, Fla. "Our boys are dying."
The association has worked out deals with other veterans groups to swap ads and has launched membership drives around Army posts and reserve and National Guard units that have sent soldiers to war zones.
The drives brought in 1,617 new members in three years, just not many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
Joining a veterans group is not a high priority among young people, said Sankoff, a Korean War veteran. "They're busy," he said. "They're moving from place to place. They don't get involved."
Ralph Dula, the group's national adjutant, says career and family responsibilities left little time for him to be involved with veterans' groups until he was older. Now the 79-year-old Korean War veteran from Florence, Ala., is leading a campaign to have the group recognized by Congress through a national charter.
Other veterans groups have launched programs to sign up and assist younger veterans. AmVets sponsored a recent job fair and symposium in Chicago that focused on the needs of young veterans and attracted more than 1,000 people. The 200,000-member group has urged its local posts to boost membership by 20 percent next year.
The American Legion's new "Heroes to Hometowns" program helps young veterans, particularly disabled ones, and their spouses find housing and jobs. The Legion also runs a support network through its 1,700 posts to assist families of deployed soldiers with such services as baby-sitting and home and auto repair.
Gary Kurpius, the VFW's commander in chief, has urged members to consider new ways to make their local posts relevant to younger members, such as offering day-care services or free Internet access.
"We seem to be stuck back in the '60s and '70s in what we're doing," said Kurpius, a Vietnam veteran from Anchorage, Alaska. "There's a perception that we are basically a social club. They associate it with a cheap place to have a beer, a fish fry and bingo."
The VFW has 1.8 million members, down from a peak of 2.2 million in the early 1990s. The American Legion has about 2.7 million members, down from 3 million in 1994.
In all, the country has about 24.4 million veterans.
Members of the Combat Infantrymen's Association said they'd welcome the veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan with open arms. They believe it helps to be able to share the horrors of combat with those who've had similar experiences.
"With Vietnam, you just came home and you tried to go from combat to civilian life," said Wayne Watts, who won the Bronze Star for Valor in Vietnam and is a retired captain with the Shelby County, Ala., Sheriff's Department. "It was a tough transition. I've lost men and it bothers me to this day."