VETERANS DAY 2013: A call to arms for young vets as veterans groups face uncertain future without you

VETERANS DAY 2013: A call to arms for young vets as veterans groups face uncertain future without you

November 11th, 2013 by Todd South in Local Regional News

Daniel Wagner, co-chairman of the Student Veterans Organization of UTC, right, talks with Cherokee, N.C., JROTC instructor Bill Underwood at the First Tennessee Pavilion on Saturday in Chattanooga.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

Daniel Wagner, co-chairman of the Student Veterans Organization of UTC, left, signs up Chuck Porter for the Veterans Day 5k race.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

Photo by Laura McNutt/Times Free Press.

Photo by Laura McNutt/Times Free Press.

Veterans Day began as Armistice Day on the first anniversary of the end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1919. It became a national holiday in 1938 and was renamed Veterans Day in 1954.

Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

AREA VETERANS DAY EVENTS AND PROMOTIONS

Chattanooga

• Silverdale Baptist Academy will hold its second annual Veterans Day program. The "student-led expressions of thanks" through music, art and dramatic performances will begin at 8:30 a.m. at the academy at 7236 Bonny Oaks Drive, Chattanooga.

• Chattanooga National Cemetery will host the Chattanooga Area Veterans Council and local veterans groups for the annual Veterans Day ceremony. Music begins at 10:30 a.m. at the pavilion; the ceremony starts at 11 a.m.

• Kayoko Dan will lead the Chattanooga Symphony & Orchestra for the free annual Veterans Day Concert at 7 p.m. at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium at 399 McCallie Ave.

Cleveland

• The city and Bradley County will sponsor a Veterans Day program at 11 a.m. at Johnston Park. Enter at the corner of First Street SW and North Ocoee Street in Cleveland.

• Cleveland State Community College will provide a free breakfast for veterans from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. at the Campus Kitchen and will host a Veterans Day ceremony at 11 a.m. in the George L. Mathis Student Center Commons area at 3535 Adkisson Drive, Cleveland.

Pikeville

• Veterans Day ceremony will be held at the Bledsoe County Courthouse at 3150 Main St., Pikeville, at 11 a.m. CST with a short parade to follow

Dunlap

• At 9:30 a.m. CST there will be a ceremonial flag raising at the Sequatchie County Courthouse at 307 Cherry St., with parade to follow.

Manchester

• A Veterans Day program is scheduled for 11 a.m. CST at the Coffee County Courthouse at 300 Hillsboro Blvd., Manchester.

Ringgold, Ga.

• The Jericho Brass Band will perform a free concert at 7 p.m. at the historic train depot at 155 Depot Road, Ringgold, Ga.

PROMOTIONS

* Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park is offering free admittance in honor of Veterans Day and current U.S. Armed Forces members.

* Krystal is offering free Express Plate Breakfast and coffee to veterans and active military personnel today from 6 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

* Kiplinger's Personal Finance is providing free one-day-only access to an online tool that will help veterans evaluate Social Security retirement options. See the link here: www.socialsecurityforveterans.com.

It had been two decades since Bill Norton returned from Vietnam.

Over those years he had helped raise a family and gone to work. But he hadn't joined any veterans organization.

Like many of his fellow Vietnam vets, he felt out of place among the silver-haired World War II and Korean War veterans who sat at the VFW bar or filled the dark halls of the American Legion post.

Then, at a Memorial Day ceremony at the Chattanooga National Cemetery in the late 1980s, a relative who was an American Legion member asked him to join, saying he needed help to help other veterans.

And when Norton got involved, he saw what he had lacked.

"You missed the simple stuff, throwing barbs at the different [military] branches," said Norton, 65. "I liked being around these guys. I just felt like I could help other veterans."

Norton is the norm among older veterans. He joined a veterans' organization in his 40s, when his kids were in school and he had some time on the job. Many others wait longer, until children go off to college or even until their own retirements, when they have more time.

But today's veterans may not have the luxury of waiting, if large organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars or the American Legion are to survive and be there to provide direct support or a simple sense of community when they're needed.

Concern about the future of such groups is not new. In the post-Vietnam era, there were predictions that vets from that war would never join. But today, the threat facing veterans organizations may be more daunting than ever before.

"I can describe it in one word -- critical," said VFW spokeswoman Randi Law.

•••

As the decades pass, fewer and fewer Americans are serving in the military.

As of 2010 an estimated 7 percent of Americans were veterans. That's down by nearly half from the 1950 peak, when 13 percent of the nation's citizens had served in the military, according to figures from the Veterans Administration and U.S. census.

And today's smaller-scale warfare and continued draw-downs in military numbers limit the pool of potential veterans.

The VA projects that the number of military veterans on this Veterans Day -- 23 million -- will drop to about 14 million by 2040. If population growth continues as expected, that means just 3 percent of living U.S. citizens would have served in the military by then, the lowest share on record.

Meanwhile, age is catching up with veterans of earlier wars. World War II veterans are in their late 80s or early 90s and Korean War veterans from the early 1950s are not far behind.

After 2015 there will be more living veterans who served after the Persian Gulf War began in 1990 than served in the Vietnam War, according to the VA.

For that reason the VFW, Legion and other such groups have focused on recruiting younger veterans by working on issues they care about -- military-to-civilian transition, education benefits and jobs.

"We're not pushing a product," Law said. "We're essentially selling an idea -- in order to secure their best interest in the future they must have a service organization."

•••

The VFW has 1.5 million members. A veteran must have served in combat to be eligible to join, Law said. That rule is important for the organization but further limits membership. Most who served in peacetime or who did not deploy overseas do not qualify.

Law said most VFW members now are Vietnam veterans. About 10 percent of VFW members have served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

While the VFW would like to see more younger veterans join, Law said the organization wants first to help new veterans, whether that help is with the GI Bill, a scholarship, job training or anything else.

By serving them when they need it early on, she believes those helped will come back later to join and help others.

That's one reason UTC student and U.S. Navy veteran Daniel Wagner got involved with a recently formed Student Veteran Organization -- to help those arriving on campus after him.

Wagner, 26, is co-chairman of the SVO.

The group, established in 2011, is made up of about a dozen veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Their main mission is to help other veterans with everything from GI Bill paperwork to adjusting to college life after the military.

When Wagner returned to campus he was lucky -- he had two retired military parents to help him navigate post-Navy life.

So he's hyper-involved by most standards. He helped organize a recent 5k run to benefit SVO and a military appreciation day at Saturday's UTC Mocs football game, and he works with the U.S. Naval Sea Cadets on Signal Mountain.

But Wagner is a rarity.

•••

Another SVO member is more the norm. Matt Vedder, a 24-year-old former U.S. Army Ranger, helps out with the SVO webpage and stays in touch with fellow members when time allows.

"I'm doing stuff with them off and on," Vedder said. "Right now my main focus is school."

But Vedder still finds some of what Norton took years to rediscover -- camaraderie.

"I feel like I can connect with these guys easier than I can with some random people on the street," Vedder said.

American Legion national spokesman John Rogers said outcry during the recent government shutdown over problems with death benefits for military families and access to war memorials for World War II veterans showed that even with reduced numbers, Americans still have affection for their veterans.

"The American public saw this and said 'this is wrong,'" Rogers said.

The demise of veterans organizations is not a new story.

"We were told 40 years ago that Vietnam veterans would never join the American Legion," Rogers said. "More than 1 million are in the American Legion. If you take away every other war era from the American Legion, we still have the most Vietnam veterans."

After that Memorial Day request, Norton not only joined the Legion but also the VFW, Marine Corps League and the Vietnam Veterans of America. He's also headed the Chattanooga Area Veterans Council and has been a lead organizer for the past five years of the local Armed Forces Day Parade here.

"It's really imperative that they get involved in these programs," Norton said. "I can see veterans groups of all kinds diminishing quite a bit. There will be nothing."

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.