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Traditional veterans groups on Long Island struggle to attract younger members

At 97, Costantino O. Scutari is still an

At 97, Costantino O. Scutari is still an active member of VFW Post 6394 in Syosset.  Credit: Newsday/Martin C. Evans

At the American Legion post in East Meadow, the basement plumbing leaks so often nobody bothers to put the wrench away.

Only a half-dozen or so guys show up for the monthly meetings. Fewer members mean less money, at a time when the building needs a lot of TLC.

The picture is pretty much the same at the VFW posts in Syosset and Patchogue — and at Legion and VFW posts across the Island and the country: Members are dying off and younger veterans aren't much interested in joining. 

In East Meadow, for instance, the post's membership has dropped by half in the past dozen years, from 200 to about 100. A few fought in World War II. The others, in Korea or Vietnam.

The Legionnaires who show up for the monthly meetings don't even gather in the building’s living room-sized main hall. Instead, they conduct official business at the horseshoe-shaped bar. Nearby, glass coolers are stocked with long-necked beers.

“We only have seven people or so show up for meetings these days,” said Wayne O’Connor, 62, a retired letter carrier from Levittown, who served in the Army from 1974 to 1977. “We try to get new members in, but they are just not around.”

The Veterans of Foreign Wars traces its roots to the Spanish-American War, and the American Legion came onto the scene at the end of World War I, but they didn't really take off until after World War II.

At the height of the war, more than 16 million Americans were in uniform — roughly 11.5 percent of the U.S. population of 140 million. Roughly 10 million of the service members had been drafted. By comparison, today's all-volunteer force numbers about 1.3 million — less than a half-percent of the country's 325 million residents. 

"The American Legion is all about protecting and defending veterans' rights and benefits, which is why we urge young veterans to join," said Joe Plenzler, a spokesman at the national headquarters in Washington. "We believe we're stronger when we stand together." 

Legion members total nearly 2 million. The membership of the VFW stands at roughly 1.2 million.

The VFW is forthright about the challenge it faces in signing up new members.

"We're 119 years old so we've had that relevance for generation after generation," said national spokesman Joe Davis. "Now, the hard part is selling us to the younger generation."

VFW officials are making a push for newer veterans in a number of ways, Davis said: more family-friendly activities like roadside trash pickups; more smoke-free posts; and more community service events with newer veterans groups like Team Red, White and Blue and Team Rubicon.

"We also need to portray our young members out there," Davis said. "And we need to brand ourselves, too — not just caps, T-shirts."

Costantino O. Scutari had his VFW cap on when he showed up for the regular meeting at Syosset’s VFW Post 6394.

“I still make almost all of the meetings,” said Scutari, who — at 97 — is one of the post's few World War II veterans. “But there are not many of us left around.”

Returning veterans like Scutari played no small part in what Long Island is today. With the help of the GI Bill, they went to college, found good jobs and bought homes with low-interest mortgages. They showed their appreciation by volunteering. They have coached sports teams, organized holiday parades and dug deep into their pockets for charity. 

But their presence in the villages and towns has dwindled, too. And some Long Islanders are wondering what the impact of the posts' struggles will be on the broader Long Island community. 

"Both of my children were christened here, and before my father died two years ago, they raised money for his wheelchair," said William Arndt of Massapequa, who showed up at a fundraiser for the East Meadow post. "They really come together and take care of families. This is not just some social hall."

Still, the social aspect and the heavy reliance on coming together at a physical place are two reasons the Legion and the VFW are hard sells to post-9/11 veterans.

Many of the latest generation of veterans say they want to put memories of mortar attacks and injured soldiers behind them, not hear war stories. And they are more comfortable connecting through Twitter or Facebook.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America describes itself as a veteran empowerment organization. On its website, IAVA tells its 1.2 million members that it is "defining what it means to be a veteran in America — on the ground and online." Members share their photos and videos on Instagram with #vetsrising and post tweets on the website. 

This year, IAVA is focusing on a half-dozen issues put forth by its members, including better treatment of female veterans and medical marijuana for veterans.

Other groups are narrower in scope. Team Red, White and Blue pushes to connect veterans in their 20s, 30s and 40s — men and women — through social activities and athletics, such as road races, rock climbing and yoga. And Team Rubicon fields teams of veterans to help first responders during natural disasters, as it did on Long Island during superstorm Sandy in 2012.

“You used to have only the VFW and the American Legion,” said Dave Rogers, commander of VFW Post 2913 in Patchogue. “Now you’ve got all these pop-ups. Young veterans go to them because they are better at social media.”

William Santini, a former commander of the Nassau VFW, sees social media as the next frontier for the traditional veterans groups to conquer.

"The main drive now is to get more into using computer, and messenger and Facebook, because they'd rather go online than go to a veterans hall,” Santini said. "We've got to get involved more in social media."

Juan Lema of Babylon fits the profile of an IAVA member, younger — 32 — and an Iraq War veteran. But he settled on the VFW when he returned to civilian life in 2013 after nine years in the Marines. The post that Lema joined is in Queens, where one of his buddies also belongs.

Lema likes the creativity that the post's Vietnam-era leaders showed in connecting with younger members. They arranged for the newer veterans to tend bar at catered events inside the hall. The part-time work came in handy for the younger members, who were still establishing careers.

But finishing nursing school and starting a family didn't leave Lema much time for the post, and he doesn't go anymore.

“For me, it’s the lack of time,” said Lema, as his new baby fussed in the background. “But for a lot of the others, it might be the organization’s style doesn’t work for them.”

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