DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are creating a new generation of veterans in the U.S., men and women. This weekend we're going to spend some time looking at what happens when they return home.
Today we consider the role of one traditional private group that's adapting to serve the nation's newest combat veterans. Last Sunday at the VFW post in Arlington, Virginia, wounded soldiers and their families climbed out of a long white van ready for Sunday brunch.
You might have a certain image of the local VFW. Maybe a smoky barroom where World War II veterans gather to reminisce. Or a brigade knocking on doors in Congress to lobby for better soldier pay and veteran services. Or perhaps the sports bar with the big-screen TV where Vietnam veterans come to watch the Sunday game, motorcycles parked out front.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars is all of those things, and it's trying to be even more now that a whole new generation of war veterans is eligible for membership.
Big John Miska(ph) is a friendly fellow with a fuzzy gray beard. Twice a month he picks up patients at Walter Reed Army Hospital and brings them to brunch here at the Arlington VFW post.
He helps 25-year-old Luke Murphy wheel onto the chair lift and lowers him to the street. Murphy is a staff sergeant with the Army's 101st Airborne Division. He lost his right leg above the knee and his left calf in Iraq and has been recuperating at Walter Reed since May.
Mr. LUKE MURPHY (Iraq War Veteran): They came and got me in their bus and brought me to the VFW post to have free breakfast. It was pretty good.
Mr. JOHN MISKA (VFW Member): Now, wheelchair entrance is in back, and so if you give me a few minutes...
ELLIOTT: Last month Gary Kurpias took over last month as commander in chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States. He's trying to shake up the organization to better serve veterans like Luke Murphy. He says in some ways the VFW is stuck on an outdated model and not in tune with today's veteran.
Mr. GARY KURPIAS (VFW National Commander): They're telling us, you know, different things that they need, different things that they want. It's not like it was in the '60s and '70s after I came back from Vietnam. I think the social atmosphere - going to the bars and so forth - they're not into this. The young people are so much more - their lives are busier. Both the veteran and the spouse is working. They don't have much time. There are so many activities going on. So if we can offer something to them and their families as a group...
ELLIOTT: On this Sunday morning, the Arlington VFW post looks and sounds like a busy diner. Members of its ladies auxiliary are busy pouring coffee and taking orders at the dozen or so tables lined up in the meeting hall. Back in the kitchen, men with tattoos and aprons are flipping pancakes and frying up corned beef hash.
Unidentified Man #1: This is camaraderie at its finest.
Mr. RICHARD HOFFMAN (Vietnam Veteran): I'm Richard Hoffman. I'm the quarter master here at the VFW Post 3150 in Arlington, Virginia.
On a typical day at 3:00 o'clock, you're going to see a few of the members start rolling in for an afternoon refreshment. And probably by 6:00 o'clock you'll have 10 to 15 people in here all telling us stories that they forgot to tell you yesterday.
ELLIOTT: Richard Hoffman is a graying Vietnam veteran in a bright red U.S. Marines jersey. Most of the vets who belong to this post come from the Vietnam, Korea and World War II eras.
Unidentified Man #2: How are you?
Unidentified Man #3: Very well. Yourself?
Unidentified Man #2: Very good.
Unidentified Man #3: Good.
Unidentified Man #2: Good to see you again.
Unidentified Man #3: Thank you, thank you.
ELLIOTT: At the back door by the bar, Hoffman greets an older gentleman wearing red suspenders and using a cane. It's 80-year-old William Woody Wilson, a World War II vet.
Mr. WILLIAM WOODY WILSON (World War II Veteran): I was in the infantry in the 45th division and I was a foot soldier, did a lot of walking. A lot of people said, Well, why didn't you join the Navy? And I said, I can walk a damn sight further than I can swim.
ELLIOTT: Wilson is a lifetime member of the VFW post in McClain, Virginia, and keeps his metal ID card in his wallet.
Mr. WILSON: It's been my everything, you know? I don't belong to anything else. I'm post chaplain. I've been that for quite some time, and they don't bother to replace me, so I guess I'm doing all right.
Unidentified Man #4: Go get your breakfast.
ELLIOTT: Wilson takes his seat at the bar next to another old-timer, who's pouring up a Bloody Mary to go along with his fried eggs and toast.
Nationally, aging World War II veterans make up the largest block of VFW members, and as they pass on, this traditionally powerful lobby group is facing a membership crisis.
After decades of growth, VFW membership peaked in the early '90s at 2.2 million. But today there are 1.8 million VFW card carriers, a fraction of those who qualify to join.
National commander Gary Kurpias is thinking how the VFW might attract the newest combat vets.
Mr. KURPIAS: Cyber cafes, coffee shops, things that the young people are interested in and some people, or young people, the troops that we talk to and visit with, say that childcare is a real need, and we thought, well, you know, why not? We have clubs that aren't being used all day long. Why not take and go along those kind of avenues?
Smoking is definitely one of the issues that keeps them from being involved in our organization. I understand. I'm a former smoker and I understand their needs and so forth.
We have about 20 percent of our population, I understand, smokes, and 80 percent does not. So if that's a true figure, the minority is definitely ruling here.
ELLIOTT: Back at the Arlington VFW, they are thinking about these issues.
Mr. ERIC ANDERSON (VWF Post 3150 Commander): Just yesterday, we installed these air purifiers throughout the facility that take care of that scenario.
ELLIOTT: Meet Eric Anderson, the commander of VFW Post 3150. Cigarette in hand, he points to some big round air-handlers on the ceiling over the bar.
Mr. ANDERSON: Installing these, yeah, they cost money, but it pulls that air up. I had a gentleman here this morning sitting - I sat here for a few minutes. He sat down there smoking a cigar. You couldn't even smell it. He's a smoker. We're all smokers.
ELLIOTT: While there's some debate about whether VFWs should be smoke-free, the leadership here is fully behind Commander Kurpias's goal to welcome young veterans.
Both Eric Anderson and Richard Hoffman remember when they returned from Vietnam and the VFW was run by World War II vets.
Mr. ANDERSON: When I first came in and a lot of the older guys came in, Vietnam vets weren't even welcome in a VFW.
Mr. ANDERSON: Weren't even welcome. We were a product of the '60s. You know, we went and we protested for better benefits, better hospitalization, better medical care, or out of the veteran's system. Okay. And we came across to our fathers, who were the commanders of the VFWs and what have you, we came across as a bunch of whiners and cry-babies and belly-achers.
Mr. HOFFMAN: Right, right.
ELLIOTT: You guys kind of felt that generation gap when you came back from Vietnam with the World War II veterans. Do you think there's a generation gap today with the younger vets coming in?
Mr. HOFFMAN: Sure. There's definitely a generation gap. But I think we are more capable of communicating with that generation than perhaps our forefathers were generate - communicating with us. I think we've learned from their lessons.
Unidentified Man #5: I think what we have today, unlike what we had when I went into - I volunteered to join in the Marine Corps - but we had the draft in the '60s. We don't have a draft today. And today, we have an elite military. They all volunteered to join, better than anything I ever saw among the men and the women. The discussion over women in combat is finished. And how can I not have my arms open to the young men and women who are protecting this country today, the way they are, and have them sit in here all beat up and tell me all the want to do is get well so they can get back to their troop. That blows me away.
Unidentified Man #6: Did you get enough to eat?
ELLIOTT: Back in the dining hall, Juanita Wilson is having breakfast with her seven-year-old daughter, Kenya.
Sergeant JUANITA WILSON (Iraq War Veteran): Are you still hungry?
KENYA: I'm fat.
ELLIOTT: Wilson is wearing a Super Gimp T-shirt, a Superman-shaped logo with a wheelchair in place of the S. She's a sergeant first class in the Army and lost her left hand when her convoy was attacked in Iraq two years ago. The Virginia VFW State Commander, Doc Crouch, is sitting across the table signing her up.
Sgt. WILSON: I'm not sure how I'm going to fit into the VFW. I live a Christian life and somehow I have to fit into this organization, because it's for my benefit as well as the future veterans and the previous veterans. I like the people to realize that it's not all about sitting down having a drink and talking about what happened to me 15 years ago. It's about, okay, I was fortunate and I made it out of there. How can I help the future generation? And how can I make myself a better person?
ELLIOTT: Does it worry you at all that there's a smoky bar right here?
Sgt. WILSON: It hasn't bothered me, but I don't want to subject my kid to the smoke and the drinking because I don't do it. And I want to go someplace where they're making a positive impact and I can assist them with that. I don't just want to join a post where there just coming on Friday nights to have drinks.
Mr. MURPHY: Man, I got to go catch that bus.
Unidentified Man #6: Okey-doke.
Mr. MURPHY: Good talking to you.
ELLIOTT: Luke Murphy, the soldier who lost his legs in Iraq, has finished his breakfast now and rolls out the back door, where Big John is waiting to take him back to Walter Reed Army Hospital. Murphy says the VFW is reaching out to his generation.
Mr. MURPHY: The guys with no legs who came and shown us that they're still, you know, able to get around. And they're like me, I guess, just a lot older. So that's what I got to look forward to, I guess, drinking coffee with a bunch of old guys and telling war stories.
ELLIOTT: Staff Sergeant Murphy has already signed up with his local VFW post back home in Palm City, Florida.
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