Veteran groups are not graying; they went gray a long time ago. Groups like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars are not only comprised of older veterans, their roles are declining. “It’s hard to get new members,” says Robert D. Weiss of the Michigan VFW. “People aren’t joiners in the way that they used to be. There’s a lot going on in their lives. They have young families, jobs.” These organizations are turning to social media to attract new, younger veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The services provided by the American Legion and VFW can be tremendously helpful for soldiers trying to reintegrate with the community. Dan Stewart, a VFW post commander, says, “I don’t understand why more veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan or Desert Storm aren’t joining because it’s a good organization.” To attract new members, these organizations have to rethink how they offer help. Instead of meeting in halls, new recruits can meet online. And it’s working.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which is a group on Facebook, has more than 201,000 followers. The Legion has 20,000 and the VFW has 64,000. Local groups also do well; one in Northville, Michigan has 106 members. Weiss says, “This helps veterans stay in touch with other people that have the same experience as they have. It also helps us get the word out on services that are available. If someone needs to talk to a therapist, and another veteran knows one, they can tell them. And I suspect many are meeting in person to discuss their experiences.”
The age difference between today’s Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is hard to bridge; it can be difficult for a WWII vet, for instance, to empathize with a recent vet because of the drastically different war landscape, and vice versa. In addition to their actual war experience, they are in very different places in their lives and need different services.
Social media gives younger veterans (though it is certainly not limited to younger veterans) a way to stay in touch, get support, and talk while living their daily lives. Twitter and Facebook communities can be just as strong as a group that meets once a week in a town hall.