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VFW Recruits On College Campus To Bring Young Vets Into The Fold


The VFW is trying to solve a problem. Younger vets aren't joining, and even when they do, they're not active. So recently, Veterans of Foreign War posts have turned up on college campuses - just two of them, actually, one on the East Coast and one on the West. The VFW hopes they'll bring young vets into the fold. Fred Thys of member station WBUR reports from one of the locations, Northeastern University in Boston.

BRIAN DUFFY: You will now raise your right hand and touch the flag of our country with your left.

FRED THYS, BYLINE: It was autumn, and the head of the VFW, Brian Duffy, stood at the podium near the veterans' memorial on campus, his VFW cap embroidered in gold with the words commander-in-chief. He swore in 28 student vets. Brian Fontaine was one of them. He lost both lower legs in Iraq in 2005 to an improvised explosive device. When he got out of the Army in 2007, he tried several American Legion and VFW posts.

BRIAN FONTAINE: And it's - a lot of them were just in, like, really dark, smoky, kind of bar atmospheres. And there was a lot of, like, really kind of just angry and resentful people. And for me, trying to transition and trying to make my own recovery, it wasn't just a very healthy environment to be in.

MAX SPAHN: But we don't have a bar.

THYS: That's Max Spahn. He's the president of the new VFW post at northeastern and a recent graduate and a veteran of the Marine Corps. He calls the new post a paper post.

SPAHN: So paper post is pretty much you get all the benefits of being a VFW member. We don't have an actual clubhouse. It's really just there's no bar (laughter).

THYS: Some of the younger veterans say rather than dark, smoky bars, they're interested in activities and activism, like camping trips and raising money for a homeless veterans' shelter. That means the VFW has to sell itself to these younger vets to make joining meaningful to them.

JOY CUMMING: It's a matter of how willing - how hard we are willing to work to gain their interest and trust.

THYS: Joy Cumming is Massachusetts state adjutant of the VFW. Recruiting the young vets creates a new problem for the VFW. It can cause resentment among the older vets.

CUMMING: So it's a complete turnaround. And there's a whole - a whole bunch of issues that are intertwined with that, whether it be, you know, an older veteran a little upset. I had to work to get in, but now I have to work to get you in? I don't understand.

THYS: And then there's the big question - can a post on campus work? The first one at the University of Oregon offers a cautionary tale for the student veterans at Northeastern. Over the last few years, Michael Nguyen (ph), the post quartermaster, says it's been a struggle to keep the post afloat.

MICHAEL NGUYEN: They have school. They have finals. They have tests. They have quizzes to prepare for - not always able to make it to meetings. And they have less time to contribute to the veteran community as a whole.

THYS: And another problem - they graduate. Nguyen says he's one of only two active members at Oregon. The VFW's commander-in-chief, Brian Duffy, admits the organization is not driving this, but is waiting for student vets to come to him.

DUFFY: Whenever a Student Veterans of America chapter or a group of veterans where they're organized under SVA approach us about putting one in, it's not - you know, it's important, obviously, to put a VFW post in, but we also look at the sustainability,

THYS: Northeastern meets the VFW's test. It's a big urban campus, and the students there hope to attract vets from other Boston-area universities. But the VFW may be content just to wait.

DUFFY: We think, in due time, many of them will become real active members of VFW.

THYS: Because many of these young vets will become more active as they grow older. For NPR News, I'm Fred Thys in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Fred Thys