Veterans Groups Try New Ways to Recruit Members

Veterans organizations faced with declining membership are turning to baby-sitting services, picnics and even recruiting women to increase their ranks.

Veterans groups say changing their traditionally male-dominated organizations to make them more family oriented could help attract younger members.

"They don't realize the importance of being a part of the organization and stepping in and fighting for various benefits," said Joel Walker, commander of the Wisconsin Veterans of Foreign Wars. "It's hard to get through to some of these people until they get older."

But it's a difficult campaign, with the number of surviving veterans dropping each year as the World War II era fades. Only 5 million of the 16 million Americans in uniform during the last world war are alive today, and that number is expected to drop to 3.8 million by 2004.

The country's largest veterans group, the American Legion, wants to recruit about 30,000 members by the end of the year to add to its 2.73 million members.

The group has placed added emphasis on creating posts and saving existing ones across the country, an effort that has maintained or started 330 posts in the last five years, said Billy Johnson, the group's national membership director.

The group has been successful at recruiting new members to replace those who die, but the gains have been small.

"No one can really get around death," he said.

Some groups have started staging picnics and planning activities that involve children, such as installing playgrounds. Others, like the Wisconsin American Legion, have posts that offer baby-sitting services to families with a member serving overseas.

The groups meet to plan essay contests and other programs for students, organize athletic leagues for children and teens and participate in other service-oriented programs -- all the while lobbying legislators on veterans issues.

Groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion and AMVETS send recruiters to National Guard bases to sign up new members.

Nevertheless, the decline in the number of veterans has caused some posts to close or consolidate.

Wisconsin had about 473,300 veterans last year, down from 575,900 in 1980, according to estimates from the state Department of Veterans Affairs.

"There are some posts that have been floundering for years. They don't meet regularly and they don't do what they're supposed to do in the community," said Walker, whose 41,500-member Wisconsin Veterans of Foreign Wars has lost about 1,700 members in the past year.

The group expects to lose about 10 posts by the end of the year, many to consolidation, said Larry Danielson, adjutant quartermaster of the organization.

The VFW has encouraged women veterans to join, and more women are starting to respond, especially after learning the organization's inspector general is Precilla Wilkewitz, a Vietnam veteran from Louisiana, said Danielson.

"It seems to be snowballing," he said.

Wisconsin AMVETS is in the same position and has started contacting people who attended a few meetings but never became actively involved, said executive director Phil Balwinski.

"Times have changed. It used to be that veterans organizations were seen as the social clubs," he said.

But the image of the smoky veterans hall where old-timers gather to swap war stories and play bingo isn't necessarily a correct one, said Danielson.

The Wisconsin AMVETS, which saw two posts close in the past three years, has had recent luck with a new post in Lincoln County.

Harry Schweigert started the post after noticing a number of newspaper obituaries for fellow World War II-era veterans. So far, he has encouraged 100 people to join, including vets from World War II through the Vietnam War, people currently in the reserves or National Guard and even a woman.

"They realize they now have a voice," he said.