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Vets’ clubs face uncertain future as membership dwindles

Local veterans organizations could face a possible staffing shortage in the future, organizers say, as older veterans are dying and there are few younger veterans to fill their boots.

Veterans organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion can help men and women returning from military service transition back into civilian life, giving them a community, emotional support and focus.

Tracy Luton, commander of Tupper Lake’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3120 and member of the VFW’s District 9 board covering much of the North Country, says that regionally, these organizations’ numbers are dwindling.

“We need new members to join to keep the VFWs and the posts alive in our area,” Luton said.

“We’re looking for members all the time,” said the Rev. Eric Olsen, a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3357 and Homeward Bound Adirondacks, both based in his hometown of Saranac Lake.

“We have staff issues, too, sometimes, but right now we’re doing alright,” said Stuart Spotts, commander of the American Legion Post 326 in Lake Placid. “Not great, but we’re doing alright.”

Luton said without these organizations, there would be a gap in meeting places.

“It means (veterans) wouldn’t have a place to go … for support with other veterans,” Luton said.

She said when veterans move into town and are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, these organizations help point them in the right direction for help.

She said the groups also volunteer to help with the community, maintain monuments and grave sites, and use their posts as meeting places for events.

Not all bad

All three leaders said their organizations are not struggling by any means, financially or overall, and some have seen recent increases in young members.

“Our post itself has kind of sprung back to life in the last few years because of the younger guys that have come in, and that has put some life back into the post, put some life back into the older legionnaires,” Spotts said.

Olsen also said New York veterans are fortunate that the state has created a better support system over the years.

“Veterans’ benefits are much better than they have been for a long time,” Olsen said.

Reasons why

Olsen said the primary reason for the lower member numbers is that the military population is smaller today than it was in the mid 20th century. This began, he said, when the military moved from a draft-based institution to an all-volunteer one.

“Our wars are fought with a much smaller population than ever before,” said Olsen, who retired in 2013 after five years as top chaplain for the New York National Guard. He is now pastor of Saranac Lake’s Lutheran and Methodist churches.

Veterans of World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War are dying as they get older, and Luton said now there are not many younger veterans to fill their shoes.

Olsen said the North Country is in a particularly difficult spot.

“We also don’t have a large young population up here,” he said. “The population of the Adirondacks, if it grows, is usually second-career people or people who are retiring.”

He said a solution for the veterans organizations is tied into the general need for a younger population here, too. He said the area needs jobs to offer young people to bring them here.

Spotts also said younger generations are less interested in joining these organizations because they are busy with their families and starting their lives after service.

People can join AMVETS or the American Legion if they have served in the military, the VFW if they have served in an overseas conflict and the Marine Corps League if they were in that branch.

Civilians can volunteer with these organizations or can join a Legion or VFW auxiliary if a family member served in the military.