Howard Ficken is happy that members of his Veterans of Foreign Wars post in East Meadow moved up the start time for their nighttime monthly meetings by a half-hour. At 89, he fades if he's not in bed by 10:30.

"I get pretty tired by the end of the day," said Ficken, who in 1944 escaped a shipwreck in the Mediterranean but now is sometimes unsteady on his feet and uses a hearing aid. "And I don't like being out much after dark. I've had a few falls recently."

At the post's meeting, when the time changed (from 8 p.m. to 7:30), the most junior member present was a 62-year-old Vietnam vet. He was a young face in a crowd of mostly World War II veterans in their 80s, some who leaned on canes or walkers. As with many similar posts across Long Island, East Meadow's membership reflects the graying of veterans organizations, which have had a hard time reinvigorating themselves with younger members from recent wars.

"I'm worried about some of them having to drive home late at night," said Salvatore Pellegrino, 79, who was a corporal in the Korean War and is the commander of East Meadow VFW Post 2736. "If we don't get some young blood, I'm worried there won't be a VFW no more."

Membership in the VFW nationally has fallen 10 percent since 1998, according to a representative at the organization's national headquarters. Nationwide, membership in American Legion posts shrank by 10.5 percent, losing nearly 300,000 members.

"We've had two of our World War II veterans die this month alone," Bill Walden, commander of VFW Post 3211 in Hicksville, said in December.

"We used to have 800 or 900 members," said Jim Beecher, 59, whose father, a WWII vet, signed him up to the VFW post in North Babylon while Beecher was stationed in Vietnam in 1969. "We may be below 500 now, and only 30 or so are active. A lot of them moved to Florida."

The fallout from dwindling memberships in traditional veterans' organizations worries many activists.

Advocacy role

Veterans groups have played a key role in lobbying for increased benefits to former troops, including expanded health care, veterans housing loans and tuition assistance. Fewer active members could result in a loss of political clout just as soldiers now returning from duty in Afghanistan and Iraq begin seeking services for war wounds and stress disorders.

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And WWII veterans have often been key volunteers in their communities, helping to organize civic events, charity drives and holiday parades. VFW Post 3211 offers four scholarships a year to local high school graduates and hosts writing contests on patriotic subjects for area grade-school students.

National VFW spokesman Jerry Newberry downplayed the organization's difficulty in recruiting new members. Posts that struggle often are ones that lack strategies to appeal to a new generation of soldiers who often feel out of place in veterans groups dominated by headstrong retirees from their grandfather's or great grandfather's era, Newberry said.

"It's a new generation of veterans, who have jobs and young families," Newberry said. "They're not interested in going into a post and listening to a bunch of old fogies argue."

Indeed, the Hicksville post includes members considerably younger than most in East Meadow. Hicksville leaders say they were able to enlist Vietnam veterans and about a dozen former soldiers from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts by insisting that WWII vets share power in running the post.

Newberry said posts that are thriving are ones that have made changes in tune with the needs and habits of younger vets. Some have sought to shed the beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking, old-man's club image attached to many VFW posts by establishing an atmosphere in which vets in their 30s and 40s - most of whom couldn't distinguish Glenn Miller from Glen Campbell - can socialize with peers.

VFW posts in some parts of the country have begun offering video games or Internet cafes. A few ban smoking, Newberry said, to make them more family-friendly.

Recruiting tactics

On Long Island, American Legion Post 924 in Hampton Bays added several younger members after a Vietnam vet there formed an affiliation with the Patriot Guard Riders motorcycle club. The Hicksville VFW post added several Iraq War veterans after holding a welcome-home party for the Uniondale-based 800th Military Police Brigade, and offering a leadership position to one of its 30-something members.

Newberry said about 13 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans - and 18 percent of Vietnam vets - have joined the VFW. WWII vets helped the VFW approach its peak in 1981, when it had 1.9 million members. Now, several wars and more than 25 years later, the VFW's ranks are at 1.76 million.

American Legion spokesman Craig Roberts said his organization will build on the success of American Legion Post 911, which opened in San Francisco in 2007 claiming to be the first in America tailored to Iraq and Afghanistan vets.

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Leaders at that post threw out the book and started anew. To make sure they reach veterans born more than a half-century after their WWII brethren, they recruit using some of the same social networking tools soldiers use to stay connected with battlefield buddies and friends back home, including Facebook and Xbox games over the Internet.

Out were all-male afternoons of beer and bingo in smoke-filled lodges. In for its members, many of them women and almost all in their 20s and 30s, were coed parachute jumps, triathlon outings and snowboarding jaunts. In contrast, the annual social for the East Meadow post last month was an afternoon dinner-dance at a Westbury catering hall. The music ran toward bandleader Glenn Miller - who died in 1944 - and "singing cowboy" Gene Autrey, who cut his first hit during the Hoover administration.

"My neighbor is after me to join, but we're from two different eras," said William Day, 56, a Vietnam vet from Levittown. "What he does, I think is wonderful, but it's like hanging out with grandpa."

Interviews with veterans in their 60s and younger suggest local veterans organizations may have their work cut out for them.

Viet vets' grudges

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Many Vietnam veterans say the rejection they felt upon returning home from an unpopular war was amplified to a degree by WWII vets, who saw their cause as more noble. "You'd look at them and say, 'I remember the bullets, I remember getting shot at just like you did,' " said Tim Dahlen, a former Army helicopter pilot who runs a Speonk construction business.

Soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are often eager to reconnect with families, resume careers or go to college and are unenthusiastic about joining veterans groups. Many say they want to put memories of suicide bombings and the cry of injured buddies as far behind them as possible: The last thing they want to do is join a group of men who have war memories dating to battles in Europe.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a national advocacy organization, said it has only a small handful of active members on Long Island.

John Kostynick, 62, an East Meadow resident who served in Vietnam as an aviation mechanic, said it was decades before he became active in the VFW. His father, a WWII veteran, signed him up while he was still in Vietnam.

"I was a ghost member for years," said Kostynick, who said the demands of family and career kept him from being active until he retired from the New York City Fire Department. "I had a job, I had a family. I wasn't around."

"I'm worried," Kostynick said. "We're losing guys at a very steady rate. I'm the youngest here. I may be the one shutting off the lights."