AR - Youth, Women Renew Veterans Groups. It's not your father's VFW anymore.
July 4, 2005 Pg. 1
Youth, Women Renew Veterans Groups
By Lisa Nicita, The Arizona Republic
It's not your father's VFW anymore.
Although more than 1,000 World War II veterans are dying each day, membership in the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars remains steady.
The nation's largest veterans groups are reaching out to more diverse members, especially women and Vietnam and Gulf War-era veterans. Arizona VFW and American Legion posts are right in step with this national trend.
"The interface we are having with the younger veterans is increasing dramatically," said Wade Habshey, deputy director of public relations at the national office for the American Legion.
"Some of the key positions at the post levels are being filled by younger veterans."
Women like Betty Gripp of Tucson and Mary Ann Derryberry of Anthem are blazing new trails of diversity within the organizations. Gulf War-era veterans like Craig Barnes of Queen Creek are stepping forward to help establish new posts.
Gripp, 51, an Army veteran who served in Korea, is set to become the state's first female commander for the VFW. Even though Gripp was in Korea during a non-wartime period, a congressional ruling allowed her to qualify for VFW membership.
As the junior vice commander for Arizona, she welcomes the evolution.
"The Veterans of Foreign Wars is finally realizing that all of us have earned the right to be there," she said.
Derryberry, 56, a Marine veteran who served in the Vietnam War, is a charter member of one of Arizona's newest American Legion posts, in Anthem. She said she is pleased to see more women involved with veterans groups and hopes even more will become active.
"In the last 34 years, it really has come a long way for women," she said. "Maybe it's because more women are in the service."
Gripp said she is encouraged by the younger generation's fresh ideas as those people get more involved.
"They are very young, but I tell you what, they bring some great ideas to the forefront," she said. "It's a pleasant change."
The American Legion and VFW run similar programs, such as offering scholarships and mortgage assistance and driving veterans to doctor's appointments or on errands. They also take care of families with service members abroad by offering to baby-sit or help out with the cooking.
VFW was also offering free first year memberships to troops deploying to Iraq.
In addition, the groups lobby Congress on veterans issues.
Local posts still have bingo and shuffleboard, but now they're also offering things such as live music, karaoke and more community service projects.
Popular culture's support of U.S. troops is also helping woo younger and more diverse veterans.
Cars and SUVs are sporting magnetic yellow ribbons signaling support for troops abroad. Local children regularly collect contributions for goody packages sent to soldiers overseas. Various groups affiliated with different branches of the military are selling colored rubber bracelets to raise money and awareness.
Cable-TV network FX is set to debut a new series, Over There, which looks at the lives of soldiers being deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Pro golfer Rory Sabbatini has even gotten into the mix, wearing camouflage pants to tour events to help support and raise awareness for the military.
"Anything new, that's a positive," Gripp said, adding that the VFW hopes to have more than 1 million people sporting its red support bracelets by this fall.
"Having this, and the young and old wearing it, it will show the world that all of us stand in unison," she said.
The American Legion is taking a different road to appeal to young veterans. The nation's largest veterans organization, with about 2.7 million members, has signed on with Team Johnson Motorsport, which will run the American Legion Freedom Car in NASCAR's Busch Series.
"We have to be out there a little bit promoting our programs heavier now because the majority of Congress is non-veteran," said John Aldecoa, Arizona's American Legion state adjutant.
He noted the American Legion has also seen an increase in female involvement.
"There are a lot more than there used to be," he said. "They just become a more visible part of our organization. They are taking a more active role in the American Legion, and they're doing a very good job, like everyone."
Craig Barnes, 40, helped bring an American Legion post to Queen Creek. Thanks to his efforts, Post 129 will begin meeting in Queen Creek and area veterans may begin transferring to the new post.
An Army veteran of Operation Desert Storm and Operation Desert Shield, Barnes represents the younger veteran demographic that is taking the baton from the World War II generation.
"American Legion is very family oriented, and if you were in the military or are in the military, they really go out of their way to help you," Barnes said. "There's a lot of people who won't cross a street to help a vet or even say, 'Thanks, you did us a solid service.' It's just one of those deals that I feel very strongly about."
Despite a changing of the guard, officials believe the core purpose behind veterans groups will remain the same.
Jerry Newberry, national spokesman for VFW, said people join the organizations to support veterans and will continue to do so.
Aldecoa said American Legion will continue to fight for veterans' rights and provide programs needed by veterans and their families.
Gripp is sure no matter the age or gender, new participants will come to the VFW and American Legion with the same commitment to veterans as have generations past.
"Our values will never change," she said.