Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Eleven years after he was recruited by the Army, Gabor Nap was courted by another time-honored organization: the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Over the past month, Sgt. Nap, a 31-year-old Iraq war vet, was invited to a brunch for recovering wounded veterans, attended a spaghetti social and dressed as the Phantom of the Opera for a Halloween party at the John Lyon VFW post, in Arlington.

“They took me around to meet the other members, asked me where I was deployed and how I liked being in the military,” he said. “I liked the way I was greeted.”

Later this week, Sgt. Nap’s recruiters will applaud as he is inducted into the chapter.

Across the country, the VFW’s ranks have thinned as veterans of World War II and the Korean War have died. But some places, such as the Arlington VFW Post, have managed to buck the trend. They have increased the number of younger members by actively recruiting at bases, inviting wounded soldiers and hosting cookouts and Halloween parties. Some acquire mailing lists of returning troops and arrange to meet them when they come home.

“If you don’t recruit, you die,” said Dave Meyers, a Marine and commander of the VFW post in Burke.

The VFW’s ranks have declined from about 1.8 million in 2006 to about 1.6 million now. But the Burke VFW has managed to increase its membership from 93 to 116 in just the past several months, adding nine young vets. The Lyon VFW post that Sgt. Nap is joining has been steadily growing. It now has 500 members - a fifth of whom are veterans of recent conflicts such as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Sgt. Nap, who is stationed at Fort Belvoir, learned of the Arlington VFW post during a social event and decided to visit. He found himself swapping stories and enjoying the older vets’ battlefield tales from World War II and Vietnam. They, in turn, thanked him for his service.

“They’re glad that we came back alive,” Sgt. Nap said.

When he returned to the U.S. in 2004, Sgt. Nap found he had time to get involved in the organization. The Army sergeant, who specializes in computer networks, is recuperating from intestinal surgery unrelated to his deployment in Iraq.

VFW officials acknowledge the difficulty of recruiting young veterans faced with demands of college, jobs and family. In addition, newer veterans face the challenges of multiple deployments and a failing economy, which has forced some to re-enlist.

Then, there’s the image of VFW posts and their members.

“The stereotype of the old guys drinking beer is predominant,” said Luis Aldaco, an Iraq veteran who is considering joining the Arlington post.

Arlington post Cmdr. Tom Kane said he tells younger veterans about good things the VFW does in the community. Public contributions and money earned at the bar for charity, phone cards for deployed troops and lobbying for better education, housing and medical benefits.

To draw younger vets, Cmdr. Kane’s post has added a wireless network and increased the number of social functions, including chili cook-offs and brunches for soldiers recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

John Getz, internal affairs chairman of the Pennsylvania VFW, said the organization could probably do more. “We have to be more open and more receptive to younger people,” he said. “Maybe open a daycare and a gym at the posts.”

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