As Vet Group Grays And Ages, New Blood Tries To Inspire Change
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Tomorrow, the Veterans of Foreign Wars will start their national convention in Pittsburgh. President Obama will address the group on Tuesday. The crowd promises to be largely gray, and that's an issue looming over the meeting. The VFW is aging fast even though they are about two and a half million veterans of recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. NPR's Quil Lawrence has this look at the next generation the VFW hopes to occupy its halls.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Marshall Hevron came home from Iraq in 2003.
MARSHALL HEVRON: When we were getting off the plane, we were joking with each other - oh, I guess I'll see you over at the VFW Hall.
LAWRENCE: It was a joke because young vets don't really go to VFW halls. When they do, like Hevron did in New Orleans...
HEVRON: I was the youngest guy by about 50 years. There were only about five or six guys in here, and they were great guys. One had - was a private in the Army stationed in Pearl Harbor. Another had been at Omaha Beach as a combat medic.
LAWRENCE: But those World War II vets died, leaving just Hevron and one other guy. That's not unique. The World War II generation is over 90 years old. Some VFW posts are closing. They need younger vets. And Hevron started to think the younger vets needed to save these halls instead of just connecting on social media.
HEVRON: The services we provide are something that can't be done online. It's something that you need face-to-face encounters in a brick-and-mortar establishment to do it in.
LAWRENCE: Over a barbecue last month, a dozen young vets described what it is they can't get online. Andrea Ferrage was a Navy officer navigating 500-foot warships.
ANDREA FERRAGE: Through the Panama Canal, Suez Canal - I circumnavigated Africa, through the Baltic through the Persian golf.
LAWRENCE: At the hospital where she works as a nurse, no one gets that. At the post, they do.
FERRAGE: It was nice to have a group of people around who you - who could understand where you're coming from.
LAWRENCE: It's not just about a shared past. Andrew Darlington did two combat tours to Afghanistan. He came home last year, and he wanted to close that chapter. He grew a beard and long hair. Downtown one day, one of the VFW guys saw him and said...
ANDREW DARLINGTON: Hey, were you in the service? And I looked at him and said no, man. And he looked at me and goes - yeah, I was like that, too, when I first got out. You know, and I was like OK, I'm listening.
LAWRENCE: Darlington was won over by the charity and service work they do at the VFW Post including with homeless vets in New Orleans. And it's a great place to network. Darlington is headed to law school in the fall and quite a few on the post are lawyers in town. And another reason...
DARLINGTON: My wife kind of pushes me to come just because she knows that it's - you know, it's almost a free therapy session. I mean you're just around veterans. There are, specifically, infantry Marines here who I can relate to, and we can talk.
LAWRENCE: The next goal is to fix the building which is 150 years old and mostly ripped down to wooden studs and rafters, says Iraq vet Marshall Hevron.
HEVRON: I like to joke that I was stationed places in Iraq that are nicer than this. But, you know, people come in and despite our poor facilities, they keep on coming back because we offer something solid to them.
LAWRENCE: There was some pushback from the older vets about traditions like an opening prayer and the uniform. The younger guys wanted to wear baseball hats, not garrison caps. They got over it. The New Orleans Post now has 200 mostly young members - just what the VFW says it needs. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
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