- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 4, 2015

FRANKLIN, Ind. (AP) - The Veterans of Foreign Wars provides a sense of community and camaraderie for recently returned or discharged military personnel to adjust to live outside the military.

Posts set up funds to help veterans with medical, psychological and other services. When a veteran in the community dies, the VFW organizes honor guards for the funeral.

But among younger veterans, membership is flagging. The most recent generation feels disconnected in the traditional VFW, said Greenwood resident and National Guard veteran Hollie Shoellhorn.

VFW as a whole is having problems getting a younger generation in. At the same time, a lot of the group likes things the way they are and don’t want to change,” she said. “We’re offering an alternative.”

To fill a need in the community, Shoellhorn has helped form a new VFW in Johnson County, focused on appealing to a younger generation as well as older veterans in the area.

Leaders of the post think that blending the groups can ensure the tradition of the organization carries on.

“We need to change as a whole in the VFW. I don’t want to see the organization fail, and I don’t want to wait until it’s too late. So we’re trying something different,” said Shoellhorn, the new group’s post commander.

The new post is based in Greenwood but also serves the communities of New Whiteland, Whiteland, Bargersville and White River Township.

Members meet in the home Shoellhorn shares with her husband, Britton. She and other organizers have turned their garage into a lounge, with a bar for people to congregate around, tables for people to eat, talk or play cards, and a flat-screen television for their weekly football or “Walking Dead” parties.

A quartet of leather recliners are packed into the home’s upstairs loft, where members can play video games against one another. A weight bench, treadmill and other exercise equipment fill up the makeshift fitness room.

Plans are in place to start offering painting classes, yoga, Zumba and cooking instruction.

“These are the things that are going to bring in a younger generation, and that’s what we need,” Shoellhorn said. “Social media is taking its toll on veterans organizations as a whole, because you can have the camaraderie on a couch at home, so we need things that will appeal to younger vets.”

Shoellhorn, 31, is a veteran of the National Guard. She enlisted in 2001 and served in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007. When she ended her service, she started attending local veterans organizations with other younger people.

While the activities, events and lounge setup worked for the existing members of these groups, new veterans didn’t feel welcomed or included.

Some of the posts did not allow children, since alcohol was served and smoking was allowed. That didn’t work for veterans with young kids, Shoellhorn said.

Adding to that, existing veterans organizations were comfortable with their mission and what they offered.

That motivated Shoellhorn to branch off and create a fresh group.

“We want to appeal to all vets,” she said. “We get a lot of younger vets who say they’ll never join the VFW because there’s nothing that appeals to me for it. Those are the people who are excited about this.”

The post has not yet been assigned a number but is known as a Forming VFW. Officially formed on Oct. 1, the group just received its charter from the VFW.

In order to form, the organization had to report 25 members and 10 transfer members from other posts on their roster. Since starting recruitment two months ago, the new group has about 50 members, Shoellhorn said. Participants range from recent veterans of campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq to a World War II veteran.

Ryan Golden is senior vice commander of the new post. He is currently enlisted in the Army National Guard and met Shoellhorn at other veterans groups in the area. When he learned they were starting a new VFW post, he signed on to help.

“It sounded like an interesting project, and thought I could help them do it,” Golden said.

The group has utilized Facebook and other social media to spread word of its formation, Golden said. Members have spoken at area county National Guard armories and appeared at a job fair at Indiana Division Headquarters

“We love VFW, and we love to talk about it,” Shoellhorn said. “We talk about it because our hearts are there. We don’t want to see an organization that has meant so much to so many go down without a fight.”

With the new post in the Center Grove area, Johnson County will have three posts within 10 miles of each other.

New Whiteland’s VFW Post 6978 has about 690 members. In September, the group’s honor guard conducted 10 funerals, and members participated in 17 community support projects and donated $275 to charities.

VFW Post 5864 in Greenwood has more than 500 members. The group gives out $45,000 in scholarship money each year and tens of thousands of dollars to help local veterans struggling with costs.

Post commander Steve Milbourn didn’t expect the new post to hurt them too much, though having three groups so close could be a detriment when it comes to fundraising.

“I appreciate what they’re doing. Their long-term goal is fantastic. Because there are so many in such close proximity, that could hurt,” he said. “But we will work with them and hope everything works out for what they’re doing.”

For the most part, the established VFW community has been supportive of the new chapter, Golden said. Members have been networking at statewide VFW events, including the recent state convention.

“There have been some people who have been upset, because we’re taking away from their membership for our membership,” he said. “But most of the other posts are really welcoming to the whole thing.”

Organizers understand that the post is in its infancy but are encouraged by the response they’ve received so far. Now that they have a charter, the group is looking at growing its roster. In the future, leaders would like to move into a more spacious permanent location for the post, but they are still considering their options.

Ultimately, they hope they can be part of the resurgence of the VFW as a whole.

“We’re trying to take the VFW and make it appealing to all generations. There are so many things that we do to try to incorporate the community - volunteering, scholarships, color guards,” Shoellhorn said. “There are so many different realms, and so many people just think of VFW as a bar.”

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