Not too long ago, I wrote a short article for LinkedIn titled, “Why I’m Never Going Back to the VFW.” In the piece, I outlined my less-than-favorable experience with a local VFW post and the reasons why I wasn’t planning on continued attendance. I had no idea the firestorm it would ignite. Overall, I received more favorable feedback than the alternative, but only by a slim margin, and the negative feedback was passionate to say the least.
I need to add a couple of disclaimers before I continue, here: Legacy veteran-serving organizations (VSOs) like the VFW or the American Legion have done so much for our nation’s veterans. Their immense impact cannot be overstated. I personally received stellar assistance from my local VFW representative when submitting a claim with the VA. At a national level, the VFW is working every day to help pass beneficial legislation on veterans’ behalf. They have done and continue to do noble work.
This doesn’t change the fact that most legacy VSOs are struggling at a local, grassroots level in the areas of membership and retention.
Additionally, I understand that “legacy VSO” isn’t exactly an official title. Rather, it is a moniker that I attach to longer-standing, national VSOs, whether they hold an official congressional charter or not. If you aren’t familiar with the difference between chartered VSOs and unchartered VSOs, click here for a handy information sheet.
If you haven’t read the article that describes my personal experience with my local VFW post, you should start there:
“I gave it a shot. Really, I did.
Membership levels and meeting attendance in former staple veteran organizations like the VFW and the American Legion have been on a sharp decline for decades. “How can we bring young veterans on board?” is a constant refrain for VFW leadership. I know that overall the organizations do good things for the veteran community, disseminate useful information, and provide a myriad of benefits — so why are they struggling? Is it simply a negative perception?
I decided to find out for myself. Perhaps I could be the one to bring new perspectives, encourage my peers to attend and join, and help my local post shed the stereotype of an ancient and fading organization, I thought. I could help change the narrative! It turned out that the rumors were mostly true.
Let me start by saying that the members of my local post were extremely friendly. Many of my peers who have tried engaging with other VFWs or American Legions found them to be cliquey and standoffish to younger veterans. In my case, that could not have been further from the truth. I was welcomed with open arms, which resulted in a pang of guilt when I decided to bail.
I made it through two meetings. By the second one, it became apparent that every meeting was going to have an atmosphere like a morgue. The sounds of a violently horrific karaoke night permeated through the walls from the American Legion next door throughout the night, which did little to add jubilance to the event. Opening ceremonies were tired and boring, the previous meeting’s minutes were droned out, and financials were dictated verbatim from a spreadsheet that had been passed out.
At this point, each post officer had an opportunity to make a report, which is where things got out of hand. The medical officer stood up and was “saddened to share a sobering and groundbreaking article” with the group. My interest was piqued momentarily. Then came a shocking pronouncement: “This study shows a direct link between schizophrenia, violent mental illness, and smoking the marijuana.” My jaw dropped.
There I sat, politely incredulous, listening to this exceptionally elderly man pontificate about an article he had found from an unverified online source claiming that even medical marijuana use can turn someone into a zombie. The article was not scholarly, not peer reviewed, and not from a medical journal. What made it worse was that the other members were nodding in agreement, punctuating with comments like, “I heard smoking the reefer turns people gay!”
Not a minute later, the gentleman next to me slammed his fist into the table and exclaimed, “I want to talk about COLIN KAEPERNICK!” Others grumbled in unified disapproval of this pariah. The guy ranted for a minute about his refusal to support the NFL and was clearly too upset to continue with the meeting. He grabbed his belongings and stormed off.
The most exciting and enjoyable part of the evening was the raffle drawing for a door prize (a check for $50) that followed the sleepy closing ceremonies. At that point, though, the damage had been done. It did little to recover the event.
I’m not here to make a comment on the NFL, Colin Kaepernick, or marijuana legalization. The point isn’t my approval, disapproval, agreement, or disagreement with any of those topics. The main issues are as follows: How is anything that happened in that meeting relevant or interesting to me? How does any of it advance the cause of the veteran community? How does it help me personally or professionally? How does it help my family? How does it help me or my peers reintegrate?
Today’s veterans are business leaders, entrepreneurs, and visionaries. They have ambitions and goals. They want to grow, achieve, support their families, and participate in their communities. They want resources, connections, and opportunities. They want friendship and camaraderie. They don’t want to congregate in a dusty room, argue about current events with older generations, sit silently as people spout irrelevance, and go through the motions in an antiquated ceremonial procedure. This is why organizations like state Veteran Chambers of Commerce are becoming so successful nationwide: They are valuable and interesting to today’s veterans and veteran professionals.
I don’t know what the fix is for the VFW nor the American Legion. I don’t know if there is a fix. What I do know is that they’re going to have to figure it out without me.”
There you have it. As I mentioned earlier, I received an overwhelming amount of feedback. Before I knew it, hundreds of comments and private messages flooded in. The comments from folks who were angry about (or strongly disagreed with) my article did little to dispel the portrait of a disconnected and less-than-inclusive organization.
The prevailing theme across most of those comments was this: “If you didn’t like the way it was run, why didn’t you stay and fix it? You could’ve spent time and worked your way up the ranks, got voted into an officer position, and made an impact! Why not be the change you want to see in the world?” I was also accused of being a “typical millennial,” in need of instant gratification, and holding a “what’s in it for me” attitude.
Which brings me to my follow-up point: A sense of entitlement is a serious threat to our legacy VSOs, especially at the local level, but it’s on the part of current members rather than prospective inductees. Instead of encouraging feedback and new ways of thinking, dissatisfied newcomers are lectured, called selfish, and instructed to “pay their dues” in hopes of someday making a few changes in the organization. How many nonprofit or membership-based organizations out there could actually survive with this attitude?
For example, one commenter said, “You know, it doesn’t have to be that way. You get out of it what you put into it.” I replied, “Imagine if I went to a decrepit old restaurant, despite people’s warnings, and had a bad experience. Good customer service, but the food was poor and the atmosphere toxic. Would you tell me to go back, get a job there and work to convince all the other employees, managers, and the owner to make sweeping changes against their wishes while trying to rally others to visit the place and have a meal there? … or just go to another restaurant?”
Negative, perhaps. But the truth remains that there are plenty of impactful VSOs to choose from these days. In fact, more than 45,000 organizations nationwide dub themselves veteran-serving. In many cases, these organizations are inclusive and welcome new members with new ideas.
I would encourage you to consider changing your thinking and expectations from “what’s in it for me” and perhaps be the change you desperately disagree with. I promise you, you will go to some other meeting in your life and you won’t like the topics of discussion. I can guarantee, there will be an ignorant statement and perhaps a study not back scholarly evidence. Maybe be part of the solution, instead of just walking by the trash and not picking it up.
To which I responded:
Not “What’s in it for me?” rather, “What’s in it for the local veteran community?” The whole ‘instead of complaining, why don’t you be the change you want to see’ argument simply isn’t valid in this case — and it’s that attitude that has been a large contributor to the decline of the legacy VSOs. Think about it. I was visiting an organization for the very first time, one that I had no experience with or loyalty to whatsoever. After I realized that it wasn’t a fit, and I didn’t feel like it could possibly be as impactful as some of the other local VSOs I engage with, I decided it wasn’t worth my time. I shared my not-so-excellent experience. Most of the reception to the article has been positive, but a handful of old-school loyalists have lashed out, calling me selfish, shameful, entitled, and wondering why I don’t drop everything to dedicate huge chunks of my schedule to fix an organization I am in no way beholden to. One that I was just introduced to. One that is likely beyond repair.
Do you understand how ridiculous that is? I don’t owe this Post anything. Talk about entitlement. I’m a bad person, because I don’t want to fix their decades-old mess after two crummy meetings?
Another commented, “Maybe instead of thinking the VFW is headed towards extinction, we work towards getting more young veterans involved and taking steps to evolving the VFW to cater more towards the needs and resources of today’s veterans.” I answered, “I definitely could try that, buy why would I? No disrespect, just curious! I think that has been the mantra for a long, long time, and it has contributed to their downfall. People tell dissatisfied new members, ‘Hey, the VFW could be great! You are just going to need to put a ton of work and time into it. You will need to be the change you want to see, and against their own wishes… Oh, and you’ll need to be elected by those same people to have a position of authority.’ The VFW isn’t the only local veteran-serving organization out there, and I don’t owe them anything — particularly if they have no inclination to change or require me to do it for them.”
I want to put out one point here: If after two meetings, you do not like what you see, YOU DON’T LEAVE. That is the problem. You start building like minded people and you create an atmosphere about change. If people are talking about polarizing issues that are not related to Post activities, you stand up and make a point of order. The Post Commander should then direct the conversation to cease.
I respectfully disagree. The problem isn’t that people aren’t sticking around to fix an organization that they are dissatisfied with or feel isn’t a good or relevant fit. The problem is that the organization expects them to.
Or this gem:
“I enjoy the VFW. If you don’t like it, don’t go. Stop pissing and moaning like today’s democraps!!!”
“…*Eyeroll* Great example of why the organization is struggling to attract and retain new people. Thanks for proving my point. I didn’t like it. And I’m not going to go. And neither is the rest of the OEF [Operation Enduring Freedom] generation.”
I could go on, but I’ll stop there. I know for a fact there are tons of progressive, active, healthy legacy VSO chapters out there, but the unfortunate truth that I learned from reading many of the negative responses to my article is that there are some deep-rooted beliefs and attitudes that may make these organizations unsustainable. That breaks my heart.
I truly want these pillars of VSOs to succeed. When they do, veterans also succeed. The immense positive impact of legacy VSOs like the VFW on a national level, however, is not a legitimate justification for an entitled attitude within its chapters. As is the case with any service discipline, the legacy organizations must stay on top of trends, be receptive to feedback from younger generations, and adapt to change, or they are doomed. It may be too late already.
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