As traditional veterans organizations like the American Legion and VFW lose members, younger vets are gravitating toward dozens of smaller, more specialized groups that offer a social outlet and opportunity to serve.
Army vet Josh Wheeldon can tick off a half-dozen veterans groups he has volunteered with: The Mission Continues , AmeriCorps Vet Corps, Team Rubicon , Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America , 22Kill , Seattle Stand Down and Team Red White and Blue .
He’s also a lifetime member of the older Veterans of Foreign Wars. But he doesn’t always feel like he fits in there.
“I went to a district meeting and I didn't have my VFW hat on,” said the Auburn, Wa. resident. “I said, 'I don't want to wear that hat!' … But that's the culture, right? You got to fit in."
Wheeldon, 32, has a reverence for the VFW and his dad’s generation of soldiers -- his father was a post commander.
But Wheeldon is typical of younger veterans who are turning to other, newer groups for community. These veterans often feel disconnected from legacy groups like the VFW and the American Legion, which have lost more than a million members in the past 20 years.
For Wheeldon, it was the hat. For other younger vets, it’s the atmosphere at the local Legion and VFW posts.
“The American Legion was active in the town I grew up in and it was just a drinking place,” said John Knox, a 32-year-old former Marine originally from Orfordville, Wis. “Knowing that alcohol abuse and alcoholism are definitely prevalent there” was a turn-off for him.
But Knox still wanted to be around other veterans who knew what it was like to serve in the military. First he joined Iraq Veterans Against the War. Then he discovered a group called Growing Veterans.
The group has nearly 500 members and about 100 regular volunteers who share farmland around Puget Sound and grow crops to sell at farmers markets.
Knox says learning to farm helped him make the transition back to civilian life. The work is physical, and he says that when contrasted with the experience of war, it can be profoundly healing.
For a lot of vets, as the plants grow, walls come down.
“We get Vietnam veterans coming up saying, 'I wish something like this had been available when I was getting out of the service,'" Knox said. "It’s the best. It’s what keeps me coming back really.”
Growing Veterans is one of hundreds of smaller, more specialized veterans groups that weren’t available to the Vietnam generation or to veterans before them.
Today’s returning service members often are looking for a more personalized experience, said Seth Messinger, an anthropologist at the Center for Rehabilitation Sciences Research at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.
“These individuals are shopping through groups depending on where they are in their post-service life,” Messinger said.
There are student veterans groups, service organizations, outdoor adventure clubs, a fly-fishing group, one that teaches glass blowing – all just for veterans. Traditional VFW and Legion posts often don’t appeal to younger veterans the way a Facebook page and a crowded Google calendar do.
“The brick and mortar VFW halls may at least initially appear to demand a greater commitment than being able to move from place to place in the online environment,” Messinger said.
Josh Wheeldon left the Army in 2009, but his military identity is still a big part of his life. He said the VFW is a part of American culture he would hate to lose.
But from his office at a south Seattle food bank, he can stay electronically connected with all of the groups he’s involved in. He says his local VFW post hasn’t updated its Facebook page since 2011.
“It’s an older generation and Facebook isn’t their thing,” he said. “But if you want to learn how to split wood, or go sight a rifle or how to cook a mean chili, these are the guys you talk to.”