The Vanishing Veterans – Millard County Chronicle Progress

Where have all the veterans gone? 
It’s not quite an age old question, at least not yet, but it is one plaguing veterans service organizations across the country and locally, too.
The answer seems rather simple: Not enough younger veterans are joining groups like American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars to replace those older members who are dying or no longer healthy enough to participate. 
The ramifications of this are not insignificant. 
On the ground, these groups have built traditional roles for themselves in civic life over a period of decades and decades. They attend to flag ceremonies and veteran burials. They teach civic lessons to school kids and perform services that otherwise wouldn’t exist without them. 
At 30,000 feet, these organizations represent a powerful lobbying arm for vets, both at the state and federal level, with considerable political sway when it comes to policies for their benefit. 
Still, the struggle is real. The plight of American Legion posts on both sides of Millard County is illustrative of the trend. 
Howard Allred, commander of Delta’s Post 135, laments the persistent lack of new membership and what it could mean when the older generation of veterans—mostly Korean and Vietnam vets, as most WWII veterans are gone now—exit the stage. 
“I’ve tried every concept I can think of to get people to join. I’ve gone to their homes,” said the 71-year-old Allred, who has spent 28 years in the Legion. “Enrollment membership is way down all over Utah. All over the nation really. It’s a nationwide problem.” 
Lately Allred’s pitch has simply included trying to get younger veterans to attend a funeral here and there, or get to one of the high school football games, one or two a season. 
“Things are different. You hit the nail on the head, there’s not a real brotherhood of warriors anymore like it was,” Allred lamented. “And the families and the kids are busy, there’s all kinds of excuses. But we still need to have flag ceremonies, flag burning ceremonies, and teach the kids.” 
Dave Allen, Fillmore’s Post 61 commander, shares the same sentiments and the same problems with decreasing membership on the east side of Millard County. 
“Service-oriented is going away. Everything is ‘what do I get for this,’” said Allen, a Legion member for 10 years. “It’s a busier world. They are just busy. With the Legion, I think there is a lot of misconception of what we do.” 
The commander said attendance at monthly meetings is generally about 8-10 members. But getting enough people to perform burial services is inconsistent at best. Allred said it’s the opposite in Delta, where he typically can rustle up enough veterans for a funeral, but only sees three or four faces at the monthly meetings. 
Allen summed up the dilemma cogently. 
“We need help. That’s all there is to it. We’re getting old,” he said. 
Wayne Jackson, a Fillmore veteran and the county’s veterans affairs liaison, was the person who recruited Allen into the Legion a decade ago. He said he joined the Legion himself 25 years ago after researching the long, storied tradition of military service among Millard County natives, which culminated in the veterans memorial wall next to the old county courthouse, he said. 
Today, he said, the Legion— Fillmore’s is one of two posts in the entire country with a log cabin for a meeting hall—even struggles getting donations for its annual Veterans Day banquet. 
“It’s down. It’s down quite a ways,” he said. “I think the interest is gone.” 
The former county commissioner said it’s not the first time. He recalled Fillmore’s post all but disappeared at one point. 
Jackson’s role as the county’s veterans liaison gives him a view not just of local veterans issues but also the status of programs at the state level. He said membership in Utah’s veterans services organizations has fallen dramatically statewide in just a single year. He said Utah was in the top five states last year for membership in veterans groups. This year the state ranks in the forties. A sudden drop that has spread anxiety across Utah. 
“That’s how much it’s changed in one year,” Jackson said. “A lot of it is because we are losing our veterans and nobody is stepping up to the plate to replace them. We need to get to our younger generation.” 
Truth is it’s not just veterans organizations suffering from what by all measures appears to be social and demographic changes among younger generations of Americans. Older fraternal organizations such as the Elks and Moose and Masons have witnessed similar declines. 
Also, combat and military service have simply changed so much in the decades since the Vietnam War, that those changes have altered what being a veteran is all about. For example, today’s military is an all-volunteer, professional force. Long gone are the days of the draft, where men were conscripted into service, often against their will, perhaps providing one more foundation for those old service members to build camaraderie from that shared experience. 
Modern warfare has also changed the experience of fighting alongside brothers and sisters in arms. The vast majority of today’s service members are in support roles. Fewer troops’ boots actually hit the ground in combat zones today. Cruise missiles and drones along with better gear and strategies designed to limit combat deaths have combined to lower the number of service members who see any “real” action. 
Asked why they might or might not join organizations like American Legion, some younger local vets suggested it’s not as much about patriotism or how military service has changed, but simply the hustle of daily life. 
Delta-area veteran Steele Weston, who spent 8 years in the military, including a stint in Afghanistan, said he loves what Legion members do, but thinks the group is simply tailored for older vets and not his age group. 
“I love that stuff. I love watching them, being around it. But I don’t know. I don’t know,” he said when asked how he feels about such organizations. “I’ve never been approached about joining. Never been invited…I don’t know if I would. I love the patriotism of it, but it’s just not for me. Does that make sense?” 
Mike Lovell, a Marine Corps. veteran of 23 years who celebrated his retirement in a ceremony last November, said he can see 
joining a veterans group at some point—probably not for a few years, though. 
“I grew up with the VFW… both my grandpas were members,” Lovell said. “I think that is the number one factor, where you are at in your life and how much time you actually have to kind of give back. I think when you are middle aged and still have kids in the house, I think it is a big commitment that some people are afraid of.” 
Lovell recently joined the Leamington town council and said he will be serving the community that way for now. 
“I’ll do it. Just right now…I don’t feel I have the time right now. I would say within the next three years,” he said. 
It’s the same sentiment Allred says he’s heard over and over, but more and more lately—no one has the time anymore. And when they might find it is anybody’s guess—and will places like the American Legion and VFW even be around anymore when they do? 
“What do you do? Where do you go from there?” Allred asks, exasperated at the notion. 
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