Elizabeth Cook: ‘Come join us,’ says veteran Hand

Published 12:10 am Sunday, February 22, 2015

David Hand is commander of AMVETS Post 845 in Rockwell and president of the Rowan County Veterans Council, and he has a message for young veterans:

“Join us in the fight.”

He’s talking about the fight for the rights and benefits that veterans deserve, veterans of all ages.

Veterans organizations have been advocating for veterans benefits for decades. But Hand and a lot of other people worry about the future of those groups.

Venerable organizations like the VFW, American Legion and AMVETS are shrinking. Membership in the VFW peaked at 2.1 million in the early 1990s and is down to 1.3 million, according to an article in the Washington Times. Members’ average age is nearly 70.

The American Legion’s membership has gone from 3.1 million two decades ago to 2.4 million members.

AMVETs is a smaller group, with 180,000 members, according to its national website.

All told, there are 19.6 million veterans in the United States. Their average age is 62.

And though we’ve been through prolonged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, young veterans are still in the minority. In 2013,  9.3 million veterans were 65 and older, while 1.6 million were under 35.

Who will support the thousands of posts across the country? Will the organizations continue to have the clout to influence Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs? Who will help veterans navigate the confusing maze of benefits?

Locally, veterans’ groups helped convince the N.C. Department of Transportation to name the new bridge over the Yadkin River the Veterans Memorial Bridge.

They rallied and demonstrated several years ago when it appeared the Hefner V.A. Medical Center in Salisbury might cut back on the services it offers. (Since then, it has expanded.)

They volunteer at the hospital and in the community. And do so much more.

The AMVETS mission statement sums it up:

“To enhance and safeguard the earned benefits of all American Veterans who have served honorably and to improve the quality of life for them, their families, and the communities where they live through leadership, advocacy and services.

Hand, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, loves going to the Frontier Coffee Shoppe at Thelma’s Restaurant in West End Plaza. Every Tuesday is veterans’ day at Thelma’s. The coffee and doughnuts are free from 9-11 a.m. for veterans. And the conversation is therapeutic, some veterans say.

But if current trends hold, Hand estimates that some veterans organizations might die out in the next 10 years. Without those groups and their lobbyists in Washington, he says, who will speak for the veterans?

The veterans’ organizations are not alone. Younger generations question tradition and want to make their own way, and that’s good to a point. Natural, even. But civic clubs and veterans’ groups that do a lot for the community are having trouble getting younger members.

A Washington Times article says veterans of the war on terror see the established veterans organizations as fraternities of older men.

“The new generation of veterans instead is gravitating toward groups organized around activities such as running or volunteering, and groups that allow nonmilitary members to take part as well.”

That’s all well and good. But Hand says younger vets will need legislative advocates. He has a simple suggestion for them:

“Look at your veterans organizations and come join us. Help in the fight against Washington bureaucracy.”

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.