Groups Reach Out To A New Generation Of Veterans

Given the higher rates of substance abuse among the current generation of veterans, the idea of meeting up with other vets over a beer is increasingly outdated. Moreover, these younger vets are joining traditional veterans groups in fewer numbers each year. So a new generation of vets groups, including Dryhootch in Milwaukee, are trying to draw these young vets in — and keep alcohol out of the equation.

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Across the country, veterans groups - including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion - are having a hard time attracting vets from America's more recent wars. The American Legion alone has closed down 2,000 posts over the past decade.

From member station WUWM, Stephanie Lecci reports on a new group in Milwaukee that is reaching out in a novel way.

STEPHANIE LECCI: Since last year, the VFW has lost about 100,000 members, and closed about 100 posts across the country. Over at the American Legion, fewer than 8 percent of its members are veterans of the Gulf Wars. So Vietnam veteran Bob Curry decided to try something new to attract the generation of vets who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. BOB CURRY (Founder and Executive Director, Dryhootch of America, Milwaukee): We don't try to displace any of these other veteran groups. But remember, these older groups kind of stagnated at the Vietnam veterans. So it was World War II and Korea.

So a number of them are closing down because they have no membership. So they're a generation that's - oh, my God - like grandpas to the current generation. And then mention Twitter and Facebook, and you've totally lost them.

LECCI: What Curry started is called Dryhootch of America. But unlike thousands of VFW and American Legion posts, Dryhootch is exactly that: dry. Instead of serving alcohol, it runs a coffee shop on the first floor of a small, converted house off of Milwaukee's lively Brady Street -dotted with boutiques, restaurants, and lots of bars. Curry says it's important for vets to be able to reconnect without the booze.

Mr. CURRY: How many of us have struggled? I struggled with addiction. How many committed suicide? So out of there, we banded a group of vets who decided that if anybody could help another veteran, it would be vets. And so now, it's been partnering with what we call our younger brothers and sisters to help each other out in whatever way we can.

LECCI: That dry emphasis reflects how alcohol abuse is becoming a major problem with younger veterans. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration says nearly 20 percent of the current crop of vets suffer from some sort of anxiety disorder or depression.

Dr. David Rudd is the scientific director at the National Center for Veterans Studies. He says a lot of those vets self-medicate with alcohol.

Dr. DAVID RUDD (Scientific Director, National Center for Veterans Studies, University of Utah): They're symptomatic soldiers who are struggling, ordinarily with post-trauma symptoms and depression. And you add alcohol into the mix, and you take a disinhibited population, disinhibit them even further - make them more impulsive through the use of alcohol - and it escalates the probability of a bad outcome.

LECCI: Rudd says avoidance is a big issue for many of these veterans. That's where Dryhootch's laid-back model comes in handy when reaching out to clients. And its peer-to-peer counseling programs have received some federal grants.

Counselor Mark Flower says his goal is to engage veterans without pressuring them.

Mr. MARK FLOWER (Peer Mentor, Dryhootch of America, Milwaukee): Our hope is that when they come in through the door, they have a cup of coffee; they kind of maybe read some literature - instead of having them have to, let's say, go to the VA, walk through that door, and it's like a commitment. And there's that admitting that there's something wrong.

LECCI: Dryhootch's interactive website is spreading its model to veterans groups across the country, and there are plans for expansion in Wisconsin later this year.

For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Lecci.

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