Our Opinion: Veterans’ groups seek new blood to continue fight for funding

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A fraternal fortress for military veterans is under new ownership after American Legion Post 13 made the difficult but necessary choice to sell its longtime post home on U.S. 301 beside the Wilson County Fairgrounds.

Legionnaires sold the 11,657 square-foot building on 2 acres of land due to steep declines in membership, a phenomenon that isn’t limited to Wilson. Throughout the United States, organizations including the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and AMVETS are seeing their ranks dwindle as World War II and Korean War vets pass away.

“When that building originated, we had 800 or 900 members,” Post 13 Commander Marty Bartlett told The Wilson Times. “We just can’t support it anymore with the 200 members we have — and that number is shrinking still.”

Veterans of the United States’ post-9/11 conflicts, including the Global War on Terror, Operation Iraqi Freedom and the Afghanistan war, simply aren’t joining veterans’ organizations in large numbers.

Perhaps the groups are perceived as social clubs for vets of a different era, the returning troops are busy building private-sector careers and starting families, veterans aren’t aware of the full range of membership benefits or a combination of all of the above.

“If young people don’t get involved, they don’t even understand what they could lose,” Bartlett said.

That’s because veterans’ organizations do more than hold business meetings, elect officers, plan communal meals and hold fundraisers for worthy charitable causes. Legislative lobbying is among the groups’ most understated, yet most important roles.

The American Legion and similar organizations hold federal and state governments accountable for preserving and enhancing veterans’ benefits, improving the Veterans Affairs health care system and providing behavioral health services and support for vets struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological tolls of warfare.

In a perfect system, veterans would not have to jockey for politicians’ attention with members of special interest groups, but we all know our government falls far short of perfect. Lobbying matters and, right or wrong, it’s often the squeaky wheels that get the grease.

“The more members, the stronger voice we have,” Bartlett said. “The more of a voice we have, the more we can work to keep the benefits veterans have sacrificed for.”

Vets’ groups are nonpartisan and more pragmatic than ideological. In 2016, the American Legion passed a resolution at its national convention calling on Congress to reclassify marijuana, now a Schedule I controlled substance, to allow more research into the drug’s potential for treating PTSD and chronic pain.

That’s proof that the organizations are changing with the times and reflecting the priorities of their prospective members. Many Korea and Vietnam vets may associate pot with antiwar hippies, but for younger troops, it’s increasingly seen as a natural alternative to pharmaceutical antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs and addictive opioid painkillers.

Bartlett said veterans’ service organizations are working to increase their appeal to younger members, noting that the American Legion Riders motorcycle group is the Legion’s “key recruitment tool right now.”

Legionnaires are willing to meet millennial veterans where they are and create opportunities for camaraderie and service that can bridge the generation gap. It remains to be seen whether the returning troops of today will embrace groups they may have long associated with their fathers and grandfathers. For our part, we hope they do.

Uncle Sam’s commitment to its soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines doesn’t end when the last shot is fired, victory is declared or the peace treaty is signed. Our nation owes its military veterans lifetime benefits commensurate with their courageous service.

Groups like the American Legion serve a vital watchdog role to ensure politicians keep their promise to all Americans who answer the call to serve. Young veterans should add their names to the rolls to help amplify that message.