- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2006

COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) — Jack Wagner was wounded twice in Vietnam, but instead of a hero’s welcome upon his return, he was advised to ditch his uniform to avoid the wrath of war protesters.

“That made a lot of Vietnam veterans go in the closet. They didn’t want to be labeled as baby killers,” said Mr. Wagner, the national commander of the Combat Infantrymen’s Association.

After being disparaged by demonstrators, Vietnam veterans also found themselves shunned by some World War II and Korean War veterans who belonged to the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and other leading veterans groups.

“All we wanted was for someone to say, ‘Welcome Home,’ ” said Mr. Wagner, 59, of Cape Coral, Fla.

With World War II veterans dying at a rate of 1,100 per day and many Korean War vets now in their 70s, it’s Vietnam veterans such as Mr. Wagner who have taken the helm of some of the nation’s leading veterans organizations. They know the importance of extending a welcoming hand to the latest generation of combat veterans: the Americans who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Even though many of us may disagree on the way this war is being handled, we are in total support of those young troops,” Mr. Wagner said during his 4,800-member group’s recent annual convention in Columbus, Ga.

The association, which limits its membership to those who earned the Army’s blue-and-silver Combat Infantry Badge, has stepped up its recruiting, particularly among those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nearly 24,000 soldiers have earned the prestigious badge in Iraq, and 9,700 have earned it in Afghanistan. Yet despite offering free, two-year memberships, the group has only attracted 58 of them.

“We need new blood,” said Dan Sankoff, 76, the association’s national membership officer from Lehigh Acres, Fla. “Our boys are dying.”

The association has worked out deals with other veterans groups to swap ads and has started membership drives around Army posts and reserve and National Guard units that have sent soldiers to war zones.

The drives brought in 1,617 new members in three years — just not many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

Joining a veterans group is not a high priority among young people, said Sankoff, a Korean War veteran. “They’re busy,” he said. “They’re moving from place to place. They don’t get involved.”

Ralph Dula, the group’s national adjutant, says career and family responsibilities left little time for him to be involved with veterans groups until he was older. Now the 79-year-old Korean War veteran from Florence, Ala., is leading a campaign to have the group recognized by Congress through a national charter.

Other veterans groups have started programs to sign up and assist younger veterans. AmVets sponsored a recent job fair and symposium in Chicago that focused on the needs of young veterans and attracted more than 1,000 people. The 200,000-member group has urged its local posts to boost membership by 20 percent next year.

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