ESCANABA - Fraternalism that once flourished in this nation is evaporating as quickly as cellphones and iPods establish a new order. Fewer and fewer folks are "belonging" to the traditional clubs, organizations and veterans groups that once abounded in our country. A new breed of citizen with markedly different values has emerged. To some extent this new attitude has rubbed off on me because I have dropped membership in many clubs, etc. and now devote my time and efforts to one vet group. Thus, I can speak to this issue with 26 years of first hand knowledge, and near daily observations.
Each year veteran groups elect new officers and that event appears with a photo in the Daily Press. From year to year the same faces appear in different officer positions. It is a system of musical chairs where people are the same, but titles change. And most are senior citizens.
A combination of variables reflects this reality. Mainly, vets from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam are dying at the rate of 1,650 per day. The state of New York National Guard handles the burial detail for that state. In 2011, they buried 10,400 vets of which 91 percent were World War II veterans.
According to Matthew Clausen, VFW membership director, most new vets are discouraged from joining due to dated stereotypes that portray, "old men drinking, telling war stories, playing bingo and waiting for the fish fry to start." That stereotype yet exists in many vet organizations, but clearly not all.
Another reality factor as a result of existing vet membership dying off and no new members is joining is the number of vet posts closing down. Within The American Legion, the flagship of California post, The Audie Murphy post closed in 2010. The much vaulted VFW post 2154 in Chicago, Ill., surrendered its charter in 2011. Since 1990, the American Legion has dropped membership levels from 3 million to 2.4 million. The VFW currently claims 1.5 million members down from 2.4 million 20 years ago. And many vets belong to more than one vet group, thus their numbers are double counted which is important because the total number counted is actually less overall and politicians realize the vet voting block is not as potent as it once was.
Also, one must delineate between memberships who are "card carrying" vs. the number who participate in post activities and volunteer. Many vets are homebound or in nursing homes. For example, one Delta County vet organization boosts 160 members, however 20 or less attends meetings. Another vet organization claims 300 members, however get six to show for meetings. Some groups have had to close their bars and discontinue the weekly summertime fish fry due to lack of customers and the same volunteers working the fish fry week after week to the point of exhaustion. They simply quit - "They've paid their dues."
Other vet organizations, being panic driven, have expanded their membership to include "associate members." To qualify for this level membership requires you to say that you've "heard of a veteran." Or better yet, you think your uncle once served in some branch of service. That, plus $30, will get you in.
Delta County has 13 veteran organizations all vying for membership. Incentive programs to join such as the vet groups paying their first year dues, etc., has essentially failed. Literally knocking on doors by vet organization recruiters, too, has failed.
New vets are a product of new and totally different generation facing problems we older vets never experienced or imagined. In 2010 census, Delta County lost 400 residents who moved essentially to find work. More common to most young families these days both parents work outside the home. Many do so with an increasing number of employers going to 12 hour shifts. The parents are active with their kids in one or more sports activities. Dad takes his oldest son and middle school daughter to their basketball, volleyball games. Mom takes the two youngest to hockey practice and games. Also, a 52 percent divorce rate in this country doesn't lend itself to stability. So, ask these folks to join and volunteer their "spare time' to a vet organization...get real.
9 percent of American citizens are military vets. Of new vets who enroll in the G.I. Bill, 50 percent drop out within the first year. If new vets join anything, they join the Iraq and Afghanistan vets of America (IAVA). They hold no social or community program agendas. They do not own buildings, hold meetings, etc. They strictly adhere to newsletters and the internet regarding vet benefits and VA programs assuring they receive what was promised them.
The facts I submit above reflect cold hard reality that simply cannot be denied. All numerical evidence supports these facts.
Fraternalism is markedly reduced and vanishing. Ask any organization and you'll hear their plight. "We need new members." Well guess what, you are not going to get them. I venture to say within 20 years most groups will appear in the Press under, "Remember When."
- - -
Wayne St. Pierre is a resident of Escanaba and a past and current member of several area veterans organizations