YAKIMA, Wash. — Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 379 has buried 14 members so far this year, and it’s only February.
Last year, 118 members died, and 134 the year before that.
But ranks at the membership-supported VFW post here in Yakima are not being replenished as fast. Membership has fallen from 1,390 in 2009 to 937 this year.
“That’s probably the trend all across America,” said Bob Hearing, 68, the post’s historian. “We’re just losing membership.”
Over the past decade, membership nationwide has dropped by roughly 400,000, from about 1.8 million to 1.4 million, said VFW Headquarters spokeswoman Randi Law in Kansas City, Mo.
She said the most obvious factor is that less than 1 percent of the American population today serves their county in the military, compared with more than 12 percent during World War II, which means today veterans are deployed multiple times.
“We continue to lose our World War II veterans and simply put, today there are fewer eligible veterans to fill their ranks within our organization,” she said.
Not long ago in Yakima, it was common to see dozens of members at the VFW hall at any given time, playing cards or sitting at the bar visiting, Hearing said.
“It made good camaraderie. Everybody in there did the same thing — they fought a war,” Hearing said. “Now, maybe we get three or four, if we’re lucky.”
Perched on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Walnut Street, the VFW hall plays a vital role in the community, linking veterans to services and providing a social gathering place.
Lunch is served weekdays, with dinner every Thursday and Friday and a Sunday breakfast.
“About 30 or 40 show up for that,” Hearing said of the dinners.
There’s a bar and even a dance floor. A service officer is available from 1 to 5 p.m. on weekdays to connect veterans with services.
“So we don’t just be a bar,” Hearing said. “We do a lot of other little stuff. We sponsor a pool team. We have stuff to help disabled vets, if he runs short and needs gas money to get to Seattle.”
Each year, members participate in the annual Veterans Day Parade that motors down Yakima Avenue, and they often bring a color guard to area schools. They also provide military honors at funerals.
One recent afternoon, eight members gathered around a table for a drink after a funeral for a fellow member, 62-year-old Lynda Bauer, who was in the Air Force.
OC Young, the group’s oldest member at age 95, said friendships keep him coming back.
A World War II veteran, he joined the VFW here in 1947, two years after being discharged from duty.
“It’s my buddies here, and being on the funeral team — that’s the biggest thing,” Young said. “Seems like the families appreciate it so much. It’s such an honor to do.”
He’s been on the funeral team for 32 years. “And he hasn’t missed a funeral,” quipped fellow member Bob Gaither.
“Well, they haven’t failed to call me for one,” Young said with a laugh.
At one time, World War II veterans solidified the VFW ranks. But with their passing over the years, Vietnam veterans now largely have the responsibility.
But the transition hasn’t always been smooth.
Coming home from an unpopular war was difficult at best for many Vietnam veterans, who at one time had no place at the VFW table.
Vietnam veteran Bill Kibett, 65, said he was still wearing his cammies when he flew back to the states, and he tossed his clothes in the trash right after the plane touched down.
“I didn’t want anyone to know that I was just back from the war,” he said. “We landed, and I’d say 90 percent of us didn’t go home in our uniforms.”
Today, he’s the local VFW’s House-Club chairman.
Fred Camerer, also a Vietnam veteran, clearly remembers the first time he walked into a VFW hall when he came home in November 1964, after flying in the first air mission in Vietnam.
“And a gentlemen at the bar said, ‘We don’t recognize that war,’ and I left,” the 70-year-old said.
But he went back and became a member in the early 1970s. Now, he’s commander of the post.
“We overcame and we’re still here,” he said. “Things need to be done, carry on the tradition.”
Now, the current guard is trying to extend membership to veterans coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq — not an easy task.
The group has recruiting events twice a year, and seeks new members at local markets and at fundraisers where poppies, the flower for veterans, are sold to benefit veterans.
But most younger veterans coming home from war today are dealing with more pressing issues than joining a club, Hearing said.
“These boys are coming home, half of their jobs are limited, they’ve been reduced to National Guard pay, it just doesn’t go very far,” he said. “So, the bottom of the list would be joining an organization.”
And there is a huge generation gap as well, Hearing said.
“A lot of kids in their 20s and 30s just don’t join anything,” he said. “They’ve got so much to do. They’ve got computers, phones, they don’t have to go out to a nightclub or anything — they’re entertaining themselves. We’re fighting a double-edged blade.”
Vietnam veteran Patrick Rivers, also a member, said he can relate to the generation gap.
“I really can’t tell you if it’s a trend, pattern or what,” Rivers said. “I can tell you this: when I came back from Vietnam, I didn’t associate myself with the older veterans.”
Rivers said he used to see the VFW as a drinking club. “But I don’t drink,” he said. He became a member just a few months ago after attending a VFW fundraiser to raise money to buy computers for veterans. “So I joined,” the 64-year-old said. “I see a few younger people there now.”
Contrary to what is happening in Yakima, there are successes elsewhere that are keeping VFW officials optimistic, Law said.
Roughly 15 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans eligible for membership nationwide have joined, and now account for 10 percent of overall membership.
“Percentage-wise, this is a larger market share than any previous war,” Law said.
Kibett wants the younger generation of veterans to be a part of the VFW.
“This is not a clique — when you walk through that door, this is an honorary place,” he said. “If they’re a veteran, we want them to come in here. This is their post. This is a hall of honor. All of these guys, this is their honor.”