- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 5, 2005

NORMAL, Ill. (AP) — Tyler Woolsey wonders whether he fits in at the VFW post he joined after a year in Iraq — and not just because of the age gap between him and some fellow veterans.

“I don’t even look at myself as a veteran,” said Mr. Woolsey, a 21-year-old who serves with the Illinois Army National Guard. “It wasn’t like Vietnam or World War II. I have nothing but respect for what they sacrificed.”

Young veterans like Mr. Woolsey, though, are exactly the type the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and American Legion hope to attract to bolster ranks dwindling as World War II soldiers die at a rate some estimate at up to 2,000 a day.

Beyond convincing new veterans that they are worthy of joining, the groups are trying to lure them with free first-year dues and programs like youth mentoring that appeal to their military-instilled sense of civic duty.

“You have a younger set coming home trying to get established back into society. … It’s not a priority to join any veterans group, simply because it competes for more of their time than they feel they have to offer right now,” said Terry Woodburn, state adjutant for the Illinois American Legion.

Yet, the VFW and American Legion — the nation’s largest veterans organizations — say they are making slow but steady progress at attracting young members.

Other new programs are aimed at making VFW and Legion posts more visible, including seeing soldiers off when they deploy and providing support for their families while they’re away.

“It’s like anything else in life. You might try it out if you know about it,” said Billy Johnson, the American Legion’s national membership director.

Nationally, Mr. Johnson said, the Legion has signed on 102,000 of 1.5 million veterans who served since the Gulf War in 1990, including 40,000 in the last four years.

Still, membership has dipped from 2.67 million to 2.65 million in the last year with the deaths of older veterans. Illinois has seen membership decline from about 131,700 to 127,300 since 2004, despite adding more than 4,600 new members.

Even if the current push for young members fizzles, though, VFW and Legion officials believe those who served in Iraq will eventually come into the fold as their priorities shift from jobs and family to health care, military benefits and other issues the veterans groups take before lawmakers.

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