Bob Dylan’s 1964 classic song, “The Times They Are a-Changin’” could easily be the swan song for the nation’s six major Veterans Service Organizations.
These organizations – known as the Big 6 – are the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), AMVETS (American Veterans), the American Legion, and the Vietnam Veterans of America.
They are losing members and influence.
A Brief History
Since the 1866 beginning of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), organizations dedicated to advocating for veterans’ rights and benefits have become a predominate presence in American culture and politics.
From the turn of the last century to the end of the War in Vietnam, the Big 6 have never backed away from their support of various veteran issues.
Over the decades they have successfully worked hard on Capitol Hill to ensure that veterans receive their benefits.
Presently, the Big 6 have placed much of their energy in settling troubling and persistent veteran issues involving the Veterans Administration.
“In advocating for veterans … the groups have wielded unquestioned power on Capitol Hill and inside the White House,” wrote Jennifer Steinhauer in a recent New York Times column.
But despite their political clout, the Big 6 are losing ground, as older veterans pass and their meeting halls close.
For almost a century, the Big 6 has relied on the older veterans to attract younger veterans.
But that does not work now.
Today’s reality is that veterans who have served in the Persian Gulf (Desert Storm), Iraq and Afghanistan are moving in different cultural directions.
“Most of the older VSOs (Veterans’ Service Organizations) have not quite made it into the 21st century,” observed Les Davis, an Army veteran and director of military admission at Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology.
Younger veterans don’t want to work on Capitol Hill.
They would rather host community service events, participate in races and offer services like childcare and Wi-Fi.
Today’s newer veterans organizations reflect a cultural shift in how they represent younger servicemembers who are far more ethnically diverse and technologically savvy.
They are about community and not about Capitol Hill.
Groups like Student Veterans of America, which advocates for education and job issues; Team Red, White and Blue, which supports service and “camaraderie” events; Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which puts a spotlight on health and employment issues; and Team Rubicon, which arranges for veterans to serve alongside civilian first responders, are the new face of today’s veterans.
Navy reservist Lt. Cmdr. Sean Foertsch, who served in Afghanistan, spoke for many when he said that legacy veterans groups are “more interested in being political players than actually addressing the needs of vets,” in a Washington Post article written by Jacqueline Klimas.
The Compromise of Change
Stereotypes die hard, and the Big 6 knows this.
Rather than be viewed as a smoke-filled meeting place for men only with a bar, some have begun to change.
VFW spokesperson Randi Law said that the organization is “working diligently to overcome” that perception by offering exercise equipment, playgrounds and technological services.
“Posts that don’t evolve face an uncertain future,” she added.
On the other hand, younger veterans like Army veteran Lynn Rolf, who served in Iraq, have joined Big 6 organizations in order to help bring about change.
Rolf cited the example that the American Legion is opening posts on college campuses to appeal to younger veterans.
“The old and the new can work together to help all veterans.”