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Veterans Groups Shrink

November 10, 1999

JOLIET, Ill. (AP) _ Taking a break from working the bingo game at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 367, Jay Minarich talks about what he and the rest of the post’s honor guard have going for the week.

``We buried a guy today, we’ve got one on Wednesday, and Friday we’ve got two,″ says the 77-year-old World War II veteran. ``That’s the way it is.″

That’s the way it is at posts across the country.

With World War II veterans now in their 70s and 80s and dying off fast, membership in the VFW and the American Legion has declined by a combined half-million members since the early 1990s to 4.7 million.

``The rule here is when a member dies, you’re supposed to get two to join,″ says Minarich, whose post has lost some 80 members in each of the last two years. ``How the hell are you supposed to do that?″

World War II-era veterans are dying at a rate of 1,100 a day, VFW spokesman Vern Pall says. To the VFW, that translates to a loss of 200 to 300 members a day.

And as they die, posts shrink and close. After rising every year from 1965, the number of VFW posts has been declining since 1993. Today, the VFW has 9,979 posts _ nearly 1,000 fewer than five years ago.

Of the Joliet post’s 1,300 members, about 900 are World War II veterans.

For years, Joliet was the kind of hard-working town that sent its young men off to fight the nation’s wars, and welcomed them back to raise families and work in the steel mills, paper mills and horseshoe factory.

The VFW came to Joliet in 1920. When it was time to build a new post in the 1940s, what rose from the ground was a structure any town would have been proud to have as a courthouse, right down to the big white columns.

When the boys came home from World War II, they bellied up to the bar with veterans of the First World War. And the boys who fought in Korea did the same.

In more recent years, that has changed.

Many younger veterans ``think of the VFW and American Legion as just old people,″ says Alita Hightower, commander of the Joliet VFW post.

In addition, ``the Vietnam guys I talked to felt screwed by the government, so they want nothing to do with anything like this,″ says John Hernandez, 41, who joined an American Legion post in Chicago after getting out of the Army.

The role of the posts themselves is changing. In the 1940s and 1950s they were places where veterans could get back on their feet and find help landing jobs and securing medical care. Today, Pall says, ``There are so many more government agencies people can go to for help today.″

Changed, too, is the post’s role in the community.

``When I joined they were quite active in the community. Now we look after our own membership, the fellas in the hospitals,″ says Norbert Lund, a 71-year-old Korean War veteran and a former American Legion post commander in Illinois.

The organizations are trying to attract younger members. The VFW, for example, got its congressional charter changed in 1995 so that veterans who served in Korea after the fighting ended could join. ``We said these guys over there today are in a situation, a cease-fire, that’s just short of war,″ Pall says.

In Joliet a few years back, all veterans in the area who had served in the Persian Gulf War were offered one free year of membership in the hopes they would become paying members the next year. But only a few did.

Today, high school honor guards are folding the flag, playing taps and firing the rifle salute at some veterans’ funerals because there aren’t enough veterans to do it.

``Eventually younger people will realize, `I need to belong to something. I served and was patriotic then and let me show my patriotism now,‴ Hightower says.

But others are doubtful.

``Younger guys don’t want to pick up the slack. They don’t want to be obligated,″ says Charles ``Butch″ Wells, a 74-year-old World War II veteran and a member of the VFW post in Joliet.

That, he says, leaves it up to the older veterans. He says: ``We’re going to keep doing it till we die.″

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