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California and the West

As Memberships Dwindle, Veterans Groups Bow Out

Organizations: Vietnam veterans are considered key to increasing the numbers, but few want to join. Some chapters are disappearing.

November 11, 1998|H.G. REZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The halls of many American Legion and VFW posts across California and the nation are pretty tame places these days. Some so quiet they are closing their doors.

As the number of World War II veterans dwindles, so does membership in these two venerable groups. American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars membership nationally declined 24%, to 3.9 million, from 1995 to 1998.

More than 1,500 Legion posts have disappeared in the last 16 years--as of this year, there are 14,862. Since 1994, the number of VFW posts has declined from 10,777 to 9,898.

At American Legion Post 132 in Orange, Pearl Harbor survivor Frank Garten sat alone in the dimly lit basement bar. Across the room, another elderly veteran sat on a stool smoking a cigarette and nursing a beer.

"Most of us who carried this post were World War II vets, but we're dying off," said Garten, 77. "I can remember when this place used to be packed on Friday nights."

Post 132 claims 500 members, but only a handful of men show up for meetings.

Garten and other World War II veterans make up the core membership of the fraternal groups that welcomed fighting men home from wars and offered them companionship and an opportunity to serve their communities.

In an effort to turn the tide on falling membership, leaders are taking a number of steps, such as allowing sons of veterans to join even if they have never served in the military.

They also are reaching out to Vietnam War veterans, who have traditionally been more concerned with Agent Orange and MIAs than with blood donations and volunteer work. That effort is hampered, officials admit, by bad blood dating back to the end of that divisive war.

Although declining membership is a problem everywhere, it may be most acute in small towns where the VFW and American Legion halls have been mainstays of community involvement.

American Legion Post 355 in the Central Valley farming community of Kerman--population 7,000--is among those closing, said acting post commander Clinton Villines, 72.

"We've got 67 members, but most of us are World War II vets," said Villines, an Army veteran. And those older veterans "are too old or sick to drive to meetings. We have about 500 veterans living in the area, but nobody wants to join. You can't make them join if they don't want to."

Disappearing along with the post will be its volunteer efforts, ranging from holiday parties for local children to the installation of a new flagpole in front of the town's senior citizens center.

"We can't continue to give back to the community without any members," Villines said. "I think Kerman will be missing out."

According to the American Legion, membership has dropped from 3 million in 1991 to 2.8 million in 1997. Last year's membership figures include 250,000 "sons of the American Legion," young men who never served in the military but are the sons of veterans, said Legion officials at the organization's Indianapolis headquarters.

Legion spokesman Lee Harris said World War II vets account for 45% of the membership, Korean vets 23% and Vietnam vets 27%, Harris said.

The numbers are just as disappointing for the VFW. Spokesman Bill Smith in Washington said membership has dropped from 2.1 million in 1994 to 1.9 million this year. World War II vets make up 50% of the VFW membership, Korean vets 15% and Vietnam vets 35%, Smith said.

Although the numbers continue to decline, figures from the Department of Veterans Affairs show there is still a large veterans population in the United States--25.4 million. California has more veterans than any other state--2.7 million, according to the government's figures.

Only 145,000 belong to the American Legion and 111,000 to the VFW in the state, said spokespersons for the groups.

Charles Moskos, an Army veteran and Northwestern University sociologist who studies veterans and the military, said the two fraternal organizations were among the most notable secular organizations of their time, reflecting a period in American history that will probably never reoccur.

"As World War II veterans die off, so will the end of an era," Moskos said.

American Legion Post 256 in Victorville illustrates the problem of attracting members, especially Vietnam veterans.

Post 256, which had been dormant for about 10 years, was reopened in February. Despite an intense recruiting drive that included newspaper and television ads, only 49 members have signed up. Of this number, "only eight or nine are Vietnam vets," said post commander Louis Basura.

VFW spokesman Smith said that his group is also frustrated by its inability to swell its ranks with Vietnam vets as the World War II veterans die off. Although the American Legion accepts most veterans who were honorably discharged, the VFW is open only to those who earned campaign medals in overseas conflicts.

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