In the Spotlight

News & Features
Tough Times for the VFW
By Elizabeth Stawicki
May 31, 1999
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the VFW - the Veterans of Foreign Wars. It's an organization of veterans, for veterans. Its members visit VA hospitals and care centers and raise money for disabled vets. But the VFW is facing challenges that threaten its survival as it moves into its second century.

THE VFW BEGAN 100 YEARS AGO by veterans of the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection who wanted to secure rights and benefits for American veterans. Unlike the American Legion, which accepts anyone who's served in the military, VFW members must serve in a war overseas. Those who served at peacetime aren't eligible.

VFW members are most visible to the public selling the little red poppy flowers for donations.

In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Taken from "Welcome to Flanders Fields", by Daniel G. Dancocks, McClelland and Stewart. Toronto, Canada, 1988
The red poppies go back to a bloody battle at Flander's Field during World War I where the casualty rate was extremely high. The following spring, on those same fields of death, sprang the red poppy flowers. Since then, veterans have embraced the poppy as a symbol of regrowth of peace and assistance.

At this downtown St Paul mall, John Dachniak gives a woman a poppy as she drops four quarters into a slotted can. Dachniak is commander of a St. Paul post and served in the Korean war.
Dachniak: Proceeds go toward the disabled veterans. We spend a lot of time at the veterans homes, the hospitals, go there and bring bingo there, all kinds of activities for them. All this money we get goes right back to the veterans. That's what it's for.
On the other end of the mall, Agnes Hare is also selling poppies. She's volunteered with the women's auxiliary for more than 40 years in connection with her husband who is a Korean War vet.
Hare: The sad thing, we can't the young people very involved. It's odd. Some are but not as many as we'd like; like me, for instance. I'm 75 years old and I'm out here working.
The VFW's numbers in Minnesota and nationally have dropped consistently for the past five years in large and small clubs. More than half of its members are in their 70s and 80s and are dying. Bill Smith of the national VFW headquarters in Washington says younger veterans aren't joining in the numbers of their parents and grandparents.
Smith: We've looked into it and it's a dilemma faced by every organization. This day and age, we have competing interests. We've gone from an era of families getting together to watch television to a single screen on the Internet. Within the VFW we're aware of that and try to enhance our programs so that they'll be attractive to young people.
In some areas of the country, the VFW broadens its mission by helping food-bank programs, scouting and supporting youth-baseball teams. It also gives out $2 million in scholarships each year.

There's another reason why some VFWs are losing their numbers, particularly in smaller towns like Two Harbors on Minnesota's North Shore. On this midweek afternoon, about a half-dozen men and women are sipping beer.

One of them is Louie Bankson who joined the VFW more than 50 years ago after serving in World War II.
Bankson: It got so that most of the kids, after a while the boomer babies left town. They don't stay. The railroad closed here in '63. Where they used to have 1,000 guys working, they now have a 150. So that was a big change; not enough jobs for the kids to stay.
Two Harbors' population has dropped by about 25 percent since the early 50s when Bankson was post commander.
Bankson: We're down quite a bit. I can remember when I was commander, we were over 400. I think the most we ever had was up to 450.
Now the post has about half that membership.

A Veteran
Listen to the poem "A Veteran", read by Ken Larson, Commander of the Two Harbors', Minnesota VFW Post.

The post's current head, Ken Larson, works hard to recruit members to make up for the average six members a year it loses. Larson is a Vietnam veteran who's worked as a railroad conductor for 29 years.
Larson: Over in Superior last year or the year before, they lost their post. They just didn't have enough members. They couldn't keep their own building.
Larson comes from a family of veterans and his bright blue eyes still cloud up when he talks. He hopes people take time to thank veterans on this Memorial Day.
Larson: This country wasn't made famous and rich by your politicians, your sports figures, it was made great by the veterans. (I've) got a lot of friends that are dead. Veterans take care of veterans. Memorial Day has turned into a three-day weekend, a trip to the lake. There's only a few days a year that some of the people think of veterans.
The VFW magazine polled its members recently on whether the organization should relax some of its restrictions to ensure its survival. Eighty-six percent of those polled supported relaxing membership restrictions to include veterans who served during the Cold War. That issue may come up at the next VFW convention in August.