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Tough mission

Dec 19, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

Traditional veterans groups are making difficult, good decisions

Riverton-area veterans groups had a difficult choice to make earlier this year. We're betting that they chose correctly.

It has long been noted that younger veterans don't have the same interest in traditional veterans organizations, nor in participating in organized veterans activities, in the numbers that earlier generations did.

This in no way impugns the patriotism or commitment of U.S. veterans in their 20s and 30s. They served with equal valor, courage and dedication as their forebears, and most maintain a strong level of pride in military service.

Most likely it is simply a generational difference, a change of preference in collegial networking and social life since hanging up the uniform. The veterans are there, but fewer of them prefer to hang out at the VFW and Legion halls than previous generations of veterans did. The shrinkage mirrors a trend in service clubs and lodges nationally.

Whatever the reason, membership numbers in the VFW, American Legion and related organizations have dipped dramatically -- not simply in Fremont County, but across the nation. American Legion membership peaked 30 years ago and declined quickly when the World War I generation passed from the scene. The VFW's membership heyday is 20 years past, timed to the aging of the World War II membership that was its cornerstone.

Riverton hasn't had a big American Legion Hall for many years. Earlier this year, the VFW opted to quit using its landmark facility on West Main Street in Riverton and has put that building up for sale.

Those aren't promising signs for either group. So the local veterans did what they might well have done had they still been in combat. They joined forces and became stronger in the process.

As reported in our Sunday edition, this combined group of veterans from the VFW, American Legion, Disabled American Veterans and others are asking veterans what they really need from their organizations and what they don't.

Apparently what they no longer feel they need is a bar, dance hall and banquet room. Hence the move to smaller digs in a downtown Riverton office and the "For Sale" sign in front of the VFW building.

Conversely, what they feel they do need is advice, assistance in government paperwork, guidelines in dealing with the assorted government agencies that have a hand in veterans affairs, answers about health care and social security, perhaps even matters tied to motor vehicle registration, money management and retirement issues.

VFW leader Jim Arndt put it well when he told Ranger reporter Katie Roenigk that the organizations have put aside any feelings of rivalry and instead have pooled resources in the service of veterans. It's not as if the VFW and Legion were the Hatfields and the McCoys, but they were separate entities with separate events, leadership and facilities, and different membership to a significant degree. They weren't used to coordinating efforts outside of a few ceremonial duties.

Now they are getting used to it because they realize they have to. The change is something of a curiosity to outsiders, but to those on the inside this probably is exactly what needed to be done.

If today's younger veterans feel more comfortable maintaining social and organizational contact with groups other than the VFW or American Legion, then so be it. That is a fact of life that the structured veterans groups need to understand and accommodate. So, by providing well-informed advice, useful service, and organizational structure that permits them to live within their means, these groups will survive the downturn in traditional membership and may well come out on the other side at least as valuable as they ever were. And who knows? They might start growing again.

It's worth a try, and they are trying it. If there were a military medal for facing down tough questions and developing realistic answers, then this group of repurposed veterans would deserve it. Here's a salute to them for finding a way to stay vital and viable. We need them today, just as we needed them when they were in uniform.

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MAIL SUBSCRIBERS: Wednesday's edition of The Ranger was delivered to the Riverton post office by 3:30 p.m., in time to meet the postal deadline for next-day mail delivery.

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