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As more servicemen and women return home with the de-escalation of the War on Terror, veterans' organizations like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), with their ever-diminishing ranks, see the younger generation as the last hope and their membership as vital to the longevity and even the existence of these organizations.
As of the latest U.S. Census, nine million veterans were 65 years of age and older, with only 1.9 million younger than 35 years old. In 2009, the average age of World War II veterans was 86 years old. Effects from exposure to the chemical Agent Orange continues to claim the lives of Vietnam veterans. This leaves veterans' organizations with a void to fill as older members are laid to rest and younger members fail to join.
These concerns were expressed by Jim Steinbeiser, Commander of the American Legion Post 511 in Dagus Mines and Secretary of Vietnam Veterans of America 720 Bucktail Chapter, who said that the majority of active club members and officials are now Vietnam veterans. He added that there is a need for new members who will eventually take the reins.
"Who's going to take over these clubs after the Vietnam veterans? Agent Orange is just killing us off. Just in the last year we buried four members from Agent Orange," Steinbeiser said.
At the annual St. Marys Servicemen's Burial Detail Banquet, Detail President Joe Rigard said it was a record-setting year, with military rites being performed at 58 funerals for area veterans. At the banquet, the cultivating/building of a new, younger membership base was among the topics discussed, with current members viewing it as essential.
"Hopefully we can get some young people in," Rigard said, adding, "but we're still going strong after 60 years."
As a result of declining membership, veterans' groups like the American Legion and VFW have in recent years made efforts to draw in the next generation of veterans through utilizing social media sites and creating webpages.
Dale Himes, secretary of Home Association with the Ridgway chapter of the VFW, said the VFW offers to pay the first-year dues for active or recently discharged veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, but said that "none of them really have renewed."
Robert Sullivan, commander of the American Legion's Post 208 in Ridgway, said that they have tried "word-of-mouth" campaigns in an attempt to enlist new members and younger veterans. but have yet to see any results.
"It just seems like that age group, generation is not interested in joining. As the older members die, there's just nobody to replace them anymore," Sullivan said.
But veterans of the War on Terror like Mike Groll and Jamie Dowie, who are active members with the St. Marys Servicemen's Burial Detail and American Legion's Post 511 in Dagus Mines, respectively, provided a unique perspective on the subject, that of the solider returning home.
Mike Groll, a veteran of the Iraq War, said that in returning home from the military in November 2010, he was introduced to the Burial Detail by member Bill Laird.
"I come home after first tour. I was in between jobs and working for Bill [Laird]. He asked if I'd become involved," Groll said.
Groll said that most people his age are preoccupied with responsibilities related to family and work, and that time and age provide more recreational and charitable opportunities, as well as a new perspective.
"It's just a phase. Most people my age have their plate filled up with stuff. As they get older, they have a new sense of appreciation for America," Groll said.
Dowie, having served in Iraq, is now sergeant-at-arms for the American Legion's Post 511 in Dagus Mines, as well as sergeant with the Post 511's Burial Detail. Dowie said that the impetus for his joining the Legion upon returning home was familial tradition.
"In my family that's just something that you do. If you're in the service, you are a member of the Legion," Dowie said.
Dowie, who just re-enlisted with the National Guard and is in his 16th year with them, was deployed in Iraq at Camp Taji, where he worked as a welder reinforcing and armoring military vehicles.
Pick up a copy of the Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.