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VFW tries to engage women veterans at national convention in Phoenix

Thousands of veterans attended the Veterans of Foreign Wars 124th national convention in downtown Phoenix this week. While the group made history by electing a woman to a leadership post, not all veterans feel welcome.

At its peak, in 1992, the VFW counted 2,167,844 members. Now, it's 957,782. An aging demographic is partly to blame, but the group also has a reputation as being for men only. 

As a German linguist, Amy MacKenzie was stationed in West Berlin during the rise and fall of the wall. At a session called, “How to engage women veterans,” she recalled visiting her local VFW post in Pennsylvania after leaving the Air Force, "in the hopes of joining as a regular member and automatically being handed an auxiliary application."

MacKenzie requested a regular application, went through the verification process and became a member in 2006. 

"The old guard, that’s what I call them, called me the blonde girl for three years," she said. 

Today, she’s called the VFW Department of Pennsylvania Women Veterans chairperson. MacKenzie oversees an annual conference for and about women veterans.

"We have a whole series of events that we do covering the VA benefits," she said. 

The benefits have never been bigger. The VFW pushed for last year’s PACT Act, a new law that will spend $700 billion to expand VA health care and benefits. One of the most important things the VFW does is help its members navigate the federal bureaucracy to get the benefits. 

During her conference for women veterans, MacKenzie said, "We bring in service officers who will process claims right on the spot."

But many veterans never get help from the VFW, because it has a reputation as an old boy’s club. 

"I mean you’re dealing with military men, you know. They can be very sexist," said Denise Perry.

"I mean you’re dealing with military men, you know. They can be very sexist." — Denise Perry, VFW National Council member

In the Army, she encountered sexism and racism. Still, Perry joined her local VFW in Maryland, and achieved leadership positions at the post, district, state and national levels. Perry credits a local commander for being an early mentor and sees greater diversity at these conventions but said more women need to be tapped for leadership roles.

"A lot of the incoming commanders they can appoint people, everybody’s not elected. If you would just give them those appointments at the national level, that would trickle down, I think, to the lower level also," she said.

At this year’s convention, the VFW elected its first woman as national junior vice commander, Army veteran Carol Whitmore. In 2025, she’ll become the group’s first female commander-in-chief.  

"That’s not why I’m doing this. I’m a veteran first," she said. "But I will be a different face than what they’re used to seeing, and I think that will encourage other women to want to join and do things."

But I will be a different face than what they’re used to seeing, and I think that will encourage other women to want to join and do things." — Carol Whitmore, VFW Junior Vice Commander-in-chief

The VFW says most members don’t list gender on their applications but 4% have identified as female. Based on event attendance, leadership posts, and veteran and military demographics, the VFW thinks it’s more like 8%. 

During the session on how to engage women veterans, Barbara Loncar, who served in the Army, said, when recruiting in public, "Ask the females that are out there as they’re coming by, ‘Are you a veteran?’ because if you don't ask them, those are the ones, as Amy said, will be badmouthing you on Facebook because you didn't ask them if they were a veteran."

Marine veteran Debbie McElhannon shared a lesson about promotion after a Louisiana event didn’t go over so well, because of three letters on a flyer: VFW

"We were told by some women veterans who did not come to the event they automatically thought males, that males were going to be over this convention for women because they saw VFW really big," she said.

The goal is to flip that reaction, to make those three letters a welcome sign for all. It won’t be easy, but as these women said, they’re not quitting. They deserve to be VFW members and get the benefits they’ve earned.

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As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.