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NH veterans groups struggle to fill ranks

New Hampshire Union Leader

May 26. 2018 10:35PM

DERRY -A small group of veterans sat in companionable silence around the canteen bar inside Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1617 on Wednesday afternoon.

At a nearby table, Tony Travia, a VFW member and commander of American Legion Post 9, sat back in a jean vest and sunglasses and smoked a cigarette while Lenny Perkins, the post commander, leaned forward on his elbows.

When Travia first joined more than 40 years ago, the Legion had its own building in town.

He would stop by for a beer during his lunch breaks and the hall would be crowded. Not anymore.

Now, the Derry VFW and American Legion share a building on Railroad Avenue, share an honor guard, and have only a few dozen active members between them.

"Both organizations - the VFW, the Legion and Disabled American Veterans - we have to work together to survive because we're all losing members," Travia said. "When I joined, it was all young guys."

It's an existential problem for legacy veterans organizations around the state and the country. At its all-time high, the American Legion Department of New Hampshire boasted more than 27,000 members, according to a recent report. This year, its roll is down to 15,054 and most posts are falling short of their recruitment goals.

The average age at local posts is approaching or past 70, leaders said, and veterans from Operation Desert Storm and the Iraq and Afghan wars aren't gravitating to the organizations the way previous generations did.

The continued decline of the VFW and American Legion could have significant ramifications all the way from Washington down to the Memorial Day parades that will march down streets tomorrow.

"We haven't communicated what our story is - what we do and why we do it," Perkins said.

At the national level, the VFW and Legion are the leading advocates for veterans benefits. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying Congress last year and their officials appeared regularly to testify before committees.

Locally, the posts hand out millions in scholarships, sponsor awards for public employees and scout troops, organize Memorial and Veterans Day events, and provide honor guards for the family of every deceased veteran who requests one. For some posts, it has become difficult to muster honor guards for the increasing number of funerals.

The Manchester VFW and American Legion Henry J. Sweeney Post 2 also share a building these days, and on Friday leaders of the two groups met at the post to discuss plans for the busy days ahead. They're organizing back-to-back parades in multiple towns, educating students about flag etiquette and holding a flag retirement ceremony.

The posts are constantly recruiting but it's difficult because many younger veterans are raising families, playing recreational sports or joining other organizations, said Dan Believeau, commander of the Legion's Post 2.

James Connolly, another member of the post, said older veterans understand the reluctance to join, but they hope that as the Iraq and Afghan veterans begin to retire they realize the importance of keeping the traditions alive.

"When you get out of the military, you want to get away from it for a while," he said. "That's the way it goes. So there's a lag, but after a while you want to get back involved."

While the decline in enrollment presents a serious challenge, there are some promising signs for the groups.

Women are becoming more involved in the VFW and American Legion, said Susan Cuddy, commander of VFW Post 8214 in Manchester. Until recently, the top three positions in her post were held by women. The current national commander of the American Legion is a woman, Denise Rohan.

In Derry, Perkins said the post has gained 15 new members this year and had two re-enrollments. Nine members of the post died last year.

He and Travia have made a point of increasing their online presence and their activities involving youth, and they said those efforts have helped increase engagement.

"The younger generation is starting to come into the ranks, but things have changed a lot in society from back in the days," said Mike Lopez, a former Manchester alderman who is active in both the city's VFW and Legion. "It's an ongoing thing, but I think in another maybe 10 years you'll see a lot more veterans going into veterans organizations. Plus, there's a whole lot of women veterans out there so there are a whole lot of people to recruit from."

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