Groups like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars have served former service members for a century. But declining membership threatens to lessen their influence.
Like thousands of men of his generation, 92-year old Vincent Migliazzo has spent much of his life as a proud member of the American Legion.
Migliazzo, who served as an Army medic in the Philippines during World War II, is the adjutant of American Legion Post 177 in Venice, California. Though he didn't join the group when he initially returned home from war, he became involved about 30 years ago.
“Our friends were joining, and our post gave a free lunch, then I heard about all the medical benefits,” Migliazzo recalled. “And so, we rejuvenated ourselves; we’re back in active duty again."
The Legion has been serving veterans since 1919, right after World War I. It has posts all over the country – many of them active in community politics and civic service.
But the membership of the Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the nation’s two largest veterans groups, is declining. They’ve lost more than a million members, largely because the World War II generation has been dying, and younger veterans are both fewer in numbers and less enthusiastic about joining the organizations.
That’s led to a struggle for survival at many of the nation’s Legion and VFW posts. Some have been forced to close, threatening a tradition of fellowship and political activism that dates back more than a century.
Groups flex political muscle
Veterans organizations are almost as old as America itself. The first such groups sprung from the Revolutionary War, when local charities were established to help ex-soldiers with disabling wounds and injuries. But it wasn’t until after the Civil War that vets got organized nationally and started to wade into politics.
Union troops formed a group called The Grand Army of the Republic.Their philosophy was if the government wasn’t going to help them, they’d help each other. They fought to provide care and pensions to former troops.
Chapman University History Professor Jennifer Keene said the group "very quickly become a de facto arm of the Republican Party," funneling benefits to veterans.
"And these are veterans who are going to vote Republican," she said.
When the last Union vet passed away in the 1950s, the GAR died with him, but Keene said the group demonstrated the political power of veterans.
“The veteran vote can really matter, so it can be an active force in partisan politics,” Keene said.
In 1899, when troops coming back from the Spanish American War were excluded from The Grand Army of the Republic, they formed the VFW. The American Legion came along twenty years later, opening its membership to anybody who served in uniform during times of armed conflict.
Thousands of troops coming home from the trenches of World War I joined. Keene said many “had a tough time readjusting financially" to civilian life. That led to a mass mobilization and march on Washington.
"These guys set up encampment for several weeks and sort of sat in the shadow of the Capitol and protested daily," Keene said.
They became known as the "Bonus Army," and their persistence led to fears of a revolt against the federal government. The American Legion feared that the Bonus Army was infiltrated by Communist sympathizers, Keene said.
“For the American Legion – an anti-Communist group – that’s really something to be concerned about,” she said.
The peak of power, and a decline
To prevent similar discontent after World War II, the Legion pursued one of the largest social welfare programs ever proposed: the G.I Bill of Rights. To historians, its passage marked the peak of the American Legion and VFW’s power.
“Both organizations in World War II see it as a great recruiting opportunity and an opportunity to make their organizations something intergenerational, something long-lasting,” said Stephen Ortiz, who teaches history at The State University of New York at Binghamton.
But those hopes were short-lived. By the 1960s, the generally hawkish military view of World War II vets clashed with the new generation of Vietnam War veterans coming home, Ortiz said.
“Vietnam fractures their political strength in a way,” Ortiz said. “Vietnam veterans are in some ways actively shunned by the major organizations”
The rift – along with a sharp drop in the size of the military – led to a decrease in the groups’ membership, a trend that continues to today as the organizations struggle to remain relevant to modern veterans.
More than 2,000 Legion and VFW posts around the country have closed. Many more are on shaky financial ground, putting communities in danger of losing institutions that for decades sponsored parades, youth baseball games, and other civic events.
Post 177 in Venice has had some success attracting younger members, said Migliazzo, the 92-year-old California Legionnaire. It counts among its membership veterans of conflicts from World War II to Afghanistan. He takes pride in the Post’s continuing tradition of service.
“We have an oratorical contest, we have a scholarship program,” said Migliazzo. “Things like that are interesting to the fellas. They’re quick to donate, they’re quick to respond, and they’re quick to help.”