When Steve Milbourn got back in 1967 after fighting in the Vietnam War, he didn’t want to join a veterans organization.
“I wasn’t interested in listening to a meeting of old people,” he said.
When young veterans think of an American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars post, they often imagine sitting in a smoky lodge and drinking beer with older men, according to Eddie Bullock, with the New Whiteland Veterans of Foreign Wars.
And local groups say one of their biggest tasks is to change their minds. Milbourn, who oversees the VFW post in Greenwood, volunteers to talk another generation out of the idea that the organization is just for old people and works to educate them on all that the VFW does.
The organization encourages veterans to go to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals to learn about combat’s effects on veterans, even if they don’t know yet that anything is wrong, he said. The local VFW also gives money to veterans who need it and financially supports the organization’s national headquarters, which lobbies for veterans benefits in Washington.
Milbourn keeps membership applications in his wallet so he’s prepared to recruit new members at any time. He has seen fruit from his recruiting efforts — the Greenwood post has 431 members, a 15-year high for the organization and a 10 percent increase from 2013.
Most members are Vietnam War veterans, who tend to be in their 60s and older, he said. But talking with younger veterans at the VA hospital or at Camp Atterbury has helped the Greenwood VFW get the younger generation involved, he said.
Local military organizations say getting those younger veterans to join is crucial as World War II veterans are dying and the young Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans either aren’t interested or don’t know how the organizations can help them.
For many of the local branches, membership is shrinking, and the funds they raise for charities and to help veterans who can’t pay their bills are dwindling, too.
For example, the Greenwood American Legion post had its income dip about 40 percent from
$1 million in revenue four years ago.
The Franklin American Legion’s membership has been consistently dropping, falling from about 900 members to about 460 in the past 15 years, board trustee David Rook said. The organization loses many of its members to death, gaining about 20 new members last year but having more than 20 die, he said.
Financially, the organization about breaks even, Rook said.
But that isn’t always the case.
The New Whiteland VFW couldn’t cover its expenses until recently, partially due to the cost of owning its own building. In 2012, the organization sold its building. For the past several months, it has broken even and can more easily afford leasing a building, according to Bullock, who is post commander.
The Greenwood American Legion post’s income dropped significantly when it stopped allowing smoking in its building two years ago due to a new state law and when it had to close the kitchen because the post couldn’t afford to replace the sprinkler system, post commander Tony Kirk said.
The organization has had to borrow money for building maintenance, such as fixing a water leak, and isn’t able to support as many charities or help as many veterans as in the past, he said.
Previously, veterans in need could contact the organization, and the Greenwood American Legion could pay for their electric and gas bills. Now, the organization has to pick which utility bill to help with, he said.
VFW and American Legion posts try to help needy military veterans by offering gas money, paying an electric bill and donating money to homes for homeless veterans. They also host social gatherings for veterans and their families, such as dinners and poker tournaments, and raise money to maintain the buildings where they meet and have events.
VFW membership dues support the local posts but also fund the organization’s national branch, which was key in getting GI Bill educational benefits for veterans so they have money for college, Milbourn said. Membership in the local American Legion and VFW posts costs $35 per person per year. Only combat veterans can join the VFW. The American Legion accepts military veterans who have served during wartime, whether they fought or not.
Local VFW members also take other veterans to doctors appointments, help them get updated military discharge papers and request their medals from the federal government if they never got them after returning from war. They also visit veterans in the hospital and in nursing homes.