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As Traditional Veterans Groups Lose Members, The Search For Community Continues

(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Davina Lunetta (left) and Tiffany Fischer volunteer at the Team RWB table at the Tempe Adventure Run on July 21, 2016.

Veterans returning home face new challenges when they get back: hassles with healthcare and benefits, adjusting to a new routine. For the last century, groups such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars have helped vets with their needs and gave them a place to feel comfortable.

Membership in these groups has been dropping, though, as elderly members pass away and younger veterans choose not to join.

Many veterans are looking for something different today, like Team Red, White and Blue.

When you join Team RWB, you join a group that bowls, barbecues and bikes together— and that’s just one month of events. The national organization was created in 2010 with the mission to improve veterans’ lives through social and physical activity. Thursday the Phoenix chapter had a tent set up at the Tempe Adventure Run.

Ricardo Renteria proudly sported his Team RWB shirt.

“As an amputee I feel singled out sometimes when I see some of these activities,” Renteria said.

Not so when he runs with RWB.

“When I see someone else with an amputation, I feel better," Renteria said. "I’m like alright, I’m not the only one here. Then when I find out that they’re a service member, oh man that makes my day right there.”

A shrinking tradition

The energized events the team plans around town are very different than what you’ll find if you walk into an American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars post.

“We’ve tried everything to get them to come here, and nothing seems to be working,” said Pat Theisen, sitting with his wife, Mary, at VFW Post 720 in Phoenix.

Post 720 has been around for about 90 years. The Theisens are regulars, enjoying a drink here once or twice a week.

“Well the reason we come here is we feel a little bit safer than going to the local bar,” Theisen said.

Here it’s more relaxed and they feel at home, chatting with the other members and the bartender. But they’re part of a shrinking group. VFW membership has been slipping since its peak in the early nineties.  

“They’re coming to be a thing of the past because there’s no new members,” Theisen said.

Sometimes he’ll see a younger vet walk into the post, but they don’t often become regulars.

Young veteran tries to find the right fit

For Juan Jimenez, the captain of RWB in Phoenix, hanging out at a VFW post just wasn’t the right fit.

“I am a desert storm, desert shield veteran,” Jimenez said.

When he finished his service in 1992, he was looking for a way to connect with other veterans, because he didn’t connect with his peers.

“Here I am, a 24-year-old veteran freshman, where the rest of my classmates were 17, 18-year-olds,” he said.

School administrators gave Jimenez the address for the nearest Veterans of Foreign Wars post.

“But it wasn’t the thing that I was looking for,” he said. “It seemed to me that everybody smoked, everybody drank. Just that scene was kind of depressing to me.”

Veterans groups are more than social circles

While the bar might be where members come together, the mission of the VFW is to support veterans with things like finances and health care, and to lobby for them in Congress. They rely on membership dues to help pay for those services, and when veterans like Jimenez decide it’s not for them, that budget drops.

The American Legion is having the same problem. It also hit peak membership in the early 90s, dropping by about a million members since. 

“It all goes back to recruitment,” said Ben Carrillo, who is with the American Legion’s Arizona Department.

He said they’re focusing on turning their younger members into recruitment leaders so they can bring in more young vets.

“Because they have been with them and served with them in the same situation, they understand each other,” Carrillo said.

It’s tough, though. Carrillo, for instance, is a Gulf War veteran, and that group makes up less than 8 percent of total Arizona members in the Legion. Younger vets make up an even smaller slice. But Carrillo said the Legion is still relevant to these vets.

“Because they don’t know what benefits and rights they have,” he said. “And when they don’t know what benefits and rights they have, especially now when they come back with all these injuries, and they’re not being compensated for it, then it sparks an interest.”

Different crowds, a common goal

For this reason he thinks veterans from his age group and younger will join, eventually. Just like it took a little while for Vietnam veterans to come around.

A 1971 Wall Street Journal article painted this same dismal picture of the Legion fading away. It talks about a Legion struggling to appeal to young Vietnam veterans, because it’s “not their thing.” But today, Vietnam-era vets now number more than a million members nationally.

“I don’t see American Legion falling,” Carrillo said.

It’s possible the Legion and VFW will see another boost in the future. It’s not like you can’t be a member of the old and the new. Ricardo Renteria, the RWB member you heard from earlier, is actually a member of all three. 

“I’ll take care of the administrative type of duties there and after I eat a lot at those meetings I come to these activities here and I run,” Renteria laughed.

He said he thinks the military does not do a good job helping vets transition back to civilian life. So he’s worried about the vets who don’t join any group.

“I’m very concerned because those are the veterans that start to fall into depression. Life starts to go downhill for them because they don’t want to be a part of anything,” Renteria said.

Fighting that isolation is where the missions of groups like the VFW and groups like Team RWB converge.

“At the end, it’s all about being with a community, with people you’re familiar with,” he said.

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Annika Cline was born in Germany, raised in California and transplanted to Arizona. She studied at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.Cline produces and reports for KJZZ’s original production, The Show, covering stories from all corners of the Valley as well as bringing listeners a slice of their own community in the weekly Sounds of the City series.Cline also volunteers as an art instructor for foster youths and their families.