W hen the American Legion was chartered by Congress in 1919, it was an effort leaders hoped would spark camaraderie and moral support for years to come for those who served in the military.
For decades, that brotherhood thrived, both in the Legion and other veterans organizations, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans. These groups, too, have had difficulty recruiting among modern service members who fought not to free our European ancestors from tyranny but protect our country from terror groups rooted in a culture most Americans do not understand.
More veterans now seem inclined to leave that history behind rather than spend time reminiscing with others who shared their combat experiences, said Jennifer Roy, manager of VFW Post 8576 in Clute.
“From what I’m seeing, (post-traumatic stress disorder) is worse now than it has been and I think more veterans coming out of combat zones are dealing with it more than previous times,” Roy said. “A lot of them when they get out, they’re done. They don’t want the camaraderie.”
The VFW is the oldest national veterans organization, tracing its roots to those who served during the Spanish-American War. Three groups of veterans banded at the local level in 1899 — the American Veterans of Foreign Service in Columbus, Ohio; the Colorado Society, Army of the Philippines, in Denver; and the Foreign Service Veterans in Pennsylvania — to continue the comradeship they had experienced in that conflict. A dozen years later, they came together in Denver and merged into what now is known as the VFW.
With about 1.1 million members nationwide, it is the second-largest veterans group in the country, but its numbers had been consistently dropping for more than a quarter-century until this year, when it added 25,000 veterans to its rolls.
The American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans organization, hasn’t been able to break its skid.
Delegates from combat and service units of the American Expeditionary Force founded the American Legion in Paris in March 1919, and Congress awarded it a charter six months later. Its mission was to provide “war-time weary vets from World War I” a reprieve from the experience as well as a safe place to connect, according to its mission statement.
With its centennial anniversary having passed in September, the organization is seeing fewer members throughout the nation, despite club efforts to solidify its ranks with new generations of service members. Its peak membership was 3.3 million after World War II; last year, national membership fell to 1.6 million members, a 3 percent decline from the previous year.
Both those organizations do much more than host get-togethers. Their programs promote patriotism across generations and seek to help veterans who are struggling medically and financially because of their service to country.
The Clute VFW’s membership numbers have stayed strong, Roy said, but that has been in part due to the struggles of other posts. The Angleton and Clute VFW posts merged, and former members of the Freeport VFW joined the Clute chapter after low membership forced its closure, Roy said.
As an older generation of war-time veterans dies, few younger members are coming in to replace them, she said.
“It’s mostly Vietnam and Korean War veterans right now,” Roy said. “We’re starting to get some Desert Storm and Afghanistan vets as well.”
Judge J. Ray Gayle III, a former Navy lieutenant, said the nonprofit organizations are reminders of the value of military service.
“I think they serve an importance in the community and they remind us, of course, of the importance of the military,” Gayle said. “When I grew up, everyone in my parents’ generation served in the military; that was a way of life back then. Now we have great veterans, but there’s only a handful of them.”
As the military clubs continue see fewer members, local leaders emphasize the clubs have an important place in history — and hopefully, in the future.
“I think the American Legion and VFW remind us about World War II and other wars — no war is good — but these clubs in our community do a great service,” Gayle said.
They also do great work for veterans, Roy said. Medical advances have created more wounded veterans and fewer combat deaths, making a support network for those survivors of war like that provided by the Legion and VFW more important.
“In my opinion, we’re always going to need these clubs,” Roy said. “Nobody helps veterans more than other veterans, and hopefully a younger generation will start supporting (these clubs) because one day they’re going to be these older guys, too.”