I’m lucky. This week, I’m at a Navy veteran’s group to present a well deserved award to one of my Sailors. It’s held in a nice hotel, and the group of veterans are great to hang out with. You’d think everything would be great.
But there are problems, specifically one problem: I’m the youngest person in the group. This veteran’s group, like so many others, is struggling to attract new veteran’s into its membership. Young enlisted Sailors, and especially young officers, just aren’t joining groups like AMVETS, American Legion or the VFW like they have in the past. This isn’t a new phenomenon, but it’s becoming a big concern now as our World War 2, Vietnam Conflict and Korean Conflict veterans are passing away in large numbers. These groups are at risk of disappearing altogether.
Part of the blame sits with the groups themselves. I wrote an article a while back about my negative experiences at a local VFW, and to this day I won’t go back. Too many veteran’s organizations became glorified drinking establishments that contribute little to the community and haven’t updated themselves as the nature of military service changed. Service members now have fought for over 15 years in wars that aren’t recognized and with no end in sight. They didn’t get ticker tape parades upon return. They often come back with mental and physical scars and then suddenly have to reintegrate into the civilian workforce. And many, somewhere around 15-25%, are female. The old boys drinking club doesn’t work for these veterans.
But the past couple of years have tempered my criticisms. I sit with these older veterans and realize that I have a lot to learn from them, yet they aren’t going to be around forever. Today a group of us swapped sea stories, and I quickly realized the challenges they faced 50 years ago are not dissimilar to the challenges I face today. Three years ago I would have told you I didn’t care if these groups died off. Now I can’t say that. These groups preserve the human side of our military legacy, something that can’t be captured in books or History Channel shows. It’s an oral tradition that must be passed down, but has too few younger members to continue carrying its torch.
Our groups need to change. If anything, the older members need to be adopting and mentoring younger members. They need to be invited to changes of command, frockings and other Navy ceremonies. The leaders of these groups need to be tied in with active duty members. It can’t be a once a year thing. It must be something continuous, because if a relationship is not growing, it is dying. And our active duty members must do a better job reaching out to those who have served before us. We often say that to forget history is to be doomed to repeat it. We seem to be on that path despite knowing its destination.
On this Memorial Day weekend, we must remember our military dead, but we must also remember that the best way to do this is to remember them through the stories of those still living. Before long, we won’t have World War 2 veterans to thank, and our memories of that conflict will fade just like World War 1 has faded. If we don’t capture their experiences now when we can still do it face to face, we will have missed an opportunity that will never return.
Our veterans may die, but their memories, and our veterans groups, should not perish with them.
This weekend, find a veteran and listen to their stories. Let them tell you about memories past, so that you can keep them alive. And once you do that, find a veteran’s grave and say a small prayer. It won’t cost but an hour of time, but it will be good for your soul.