Bayonne has a long history of being one of the most patriotic cities in America. Men and, more recently, women from Bayonne have often been among the first to volunteer when the nation faces a military threat. Testifying to this is the fact that the city has 12 active veterans’ posts.
Yet, as patriotic as Bayonne is – with men and women still shipping out from Bayonne to help defend the country – membership in these posts is declining. This is because most of the members of these posts are getting old or dying off, and newer veterans from wars such as Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq, and Afghanistan are not joining.
While some of the posts still have a number of members on their rolls, they often operate with a core group who attend meetings regularly and bear the burden of civic events.
“We know there are younger veterans in town and we’re trying to get them to join.” — Frank Perrucci
This is, unfortunately, a national trend that has been going on since the late 1980s.
Veterans groups like those in Bayonne flourished after World War II, when posts served as a social network for those returning home from war, where men who had gone through similar experiences could gather and offer support for each other. But several studies done since the 1990s seem to indicate the these social networks are less appealing to younger veterans, even though these groups tend to form the backbone of lobbying efforts for veterans rights.
“The American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars are the two biggest organizations in the country, and they fight for veterans’ benefits whenever Congress wants to cut them,” said Perrucci. “Posts like those in Bayonne are needed to support that effort.”
The bulk of members of these organizations come from World War II and the Korean War. Though some Vietnam War veterans have joined in recent years, many of these men and women are also beginning to age – most now in their 50s and 60s.
The most recent study done by the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy and the School of Public and Environmental Affairs said there are wide social gaps between younger and older veterans that appear to discourage membership. Older veterans groups, the study showed, tended to center around a tavern-like setting, where veterans play pool, trade stories and such, while younger veterans appear to want a setting where they can set up a laptop, drink coffee or play video games.
Although less an issue in Bayonne – where younger veterans received a warmer welcome coming home from wars over seas – in many parts of the country, the report said, older veterans groups actually closed their doors to homecoming veterans, an exile that lasted almost 20 years in some cases, creating an even greater social gap between younger and older veterans.
The study, which concluded in 2002, showed that almost half the veterans groups saw a deep dip in membership during the late 1990s, as the population of older veterans died off.
“We lost two veterans just this week,” Perrucci said on Nov. 4, when he and other veterans gathered for the wake of Frank Sullivan.
The study shows that as the number of World War II veterans dwindle, so does membership in the VFW and American Legion.
Federal statistics show that American Legion and VFW membership nationally declined 24 percent to 3.9 million, from 1995 to 1998.
Although with social differences, younger veterans also tend to differ in the issues they need addressed. Vietnam veterans, for instance, tended to be concerned with Agent Orange and troops missing in action. For many years, the veterans groups were slow to pick up on these issues, and by the time the groups began to embrace these concerns, many Vietnam era veterans felt alienated.
While America has had a significantly long period of peace from the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 to the next significant conflict in 1991’s Desert Storm operations, membership in the American Legion is open to all veterans, not just those who served in war.
And even the America Legion’s numbers have dropped significantly over the years, and more than 1,500 American Legion posts have closed up since the early 1990s.
Yet, statistics show there are more than 27 million veterans in the United States as of 2005, and the numbers increase as more troops serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We need to get some of these younger veterans to join,” Perrucci said, noting that the lobbying efforts on a national level are needed as much today as in the past.
The more recent statistics from Afghanistan show that more than 4,000 Americans have been wounded and about 1,000 killed. In Iraq, the numbers are significantly higher, with more than 4,000 Americans killed and about 30,000 wounded. Issues like medical and mental rehabilitation become critical issues as the federal government looks to trim costs.
Perrucci said groups like the VFW and the American Legion are critical for keeping these cuts from impacting veterans. In order for these groups to be effective, they must keep up membership on a local level.
“We have a lot of veterans’ posts, so that if someone has personal issues at one, they can possibly join one of the others or the American Legion,” Perrucci said. “We try to talk to our own friends, but we need to reach out to all veterans. It is important that these veterans organizations remain strong so that veterans won’t be forgotten when Congress cuts the budget. Somebody has to fight for their rights. So we have to keep our numbers up.”
With the exception of the American Legion, which is open to all veterans, membership in most groups is determined by the dates of service and the date of conflict.
“Call or stop in at a post to see if you qualify,” he said.
Contact numbers for the various posts are: American Legion Post 165 (Mackenzie), (201) 858-9889; American Legion Post No.19, (201) 858-9349; American Polish Veterans, (201) 339-8752; Disabled American Veterans Post 5, (201) 823-1823; Post 1612 Catholic War Veterans, (201) 858-2071; Jewish War Veterans Post 18, (201) 436-6318; Korean War Veterans of H. C., (201) 437-1874; Vietnam Veterans Chapter 151, (201) 823-1823; Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7470, (201) 858-9519; and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 226, (201) 858-9030.
Veterans’ Day ceremonies are scheduled to be held at City Hall on Avenue C at 7 p.m. on Nov. 11.