Just seven years ago, members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3199 showed off their newly renovated building and a new flagpole on Hatch Road along the Tuolumne River southwest of Modesto.
Just days ago, the post got a reprieve from shutting its doors.
“We got the order from the district command to shut down,” Post 3199 Commander Jason Simpson told me.
The order, it turned out, was more of a threat intended to jolt existing members into being more involved by attending meetings and events, and to get better at recruiting new members. The reaction and response got the desired effect and the post – which began in 1939, endured the flood of 1997 and a fire a decade later – will stay open.
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Post 3199, Simpson said, boasts 337 members but only about 10 generally attend the meetings. Typical of what’s happened at other VFW posts across the nation, the Modesto post is transitioning from leadership by veterans from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars to the younger vets who fought in Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Therein lies the problem: Few among the younger generation of vets are flocking to VFW posts as did their predecessors from the wars of other eras. That must change if the post is to survive and revive. They need to find ways to get more of the younger veterans who fought overseas to enlist in the organization on the home front as well.
“We’re trying to get that generation in here – my generation,” said Simpson. It is no simple task. “Other than through other organizations, it is word of mouth and the social media.”
Simpson, 30, grew up in Ceres. He enlisted in the Navy, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan before chasing Somali pirates off Africa’s Indian Ocean coast. Injuries ended his Navy career and sent him home to Ceres.
“I didn’t want to come home and be a burden,” he said. “I didn’t go there for two wars to come home and live with my parents.”
Instead, he lived for a time in the back of his pickup truck in the parking lot of the VFW post. They offered him the groundskeeper/caretaker position. Now he is the post’s commander.
After he took over, Tony Castro decided to take a closer look. Castro is 42 and spent time in 27 foreign countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq, in his 13 years in the Air Force. After being retired due to a medical condition, he visited the VFW a couple times. He didn’t immediately join, though.
“I love the Vietnam vets,” he said. “I ride motorcycles with Vietnam vets and post-Vietnam vets. But I didn’t see any of myself in there (the post) – younger, Gulf War vets.”
That changed after Simpson became the post commander about a year ago. Castro signed on six months later. A broadcaster while in the military, he recognized the need to reach out to younger veterans online. He upgraded the post’s web page, its Facebook page and Twitter feed.
Granted, much of what they do at the VFW is social: dinners, dances, seasonal parties. Some of that might appeal to younger veterans, or it might not.
“The politics of the organization have scared them away in the past,” Castro said. “The traditions are great: breakfast every week and the dinners every Friday. But now its mostly older guys in their 80s and its tougher for them to get here.”
But the organization also helps veterans find jobs and deal with benefits and claims through the Department of Veterans Affairs. It is open to the public on Friday nights and Saturdays, so that it isn’t a veterans-only crowd..
They just need more younger vets like themselves to visit the post to see not only what it can offer them, but also what they can do for others as members. It’s not an insurmountable task. Some 37,000 veterans live within VFW District 13, which encompasses Stanislaus, Merced, San Joaquin, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties. Of those, 21,000 are under age 65.
Among them is David Bland, who moved to the Valley after doing tours in Iraq in 2004-05 and in 2007-08.
“I wanted to find somewhere to go,” said Bland, 33, who works as a technical trainer for The Wine Group in Ripon. “I went there and liked it, but there were more Vietnam vets – not so many younger guys like me. The Vietnam vets are mostly retired and have time to hang out at the VFW. I work full time.”
Simpson, being three years younger, made it easy for him to join, though, and Bland is now the post’s quartermaster, the equivalent of the organization’s chief financial officer. So they are making progress.
“We’re bringing in enough money to keep the doors open,” Castro said. “But make no mistake about it: The long-term success of the post depends on convincing the new generation of veterans to get active in the organization.”
For certain, VFW Post 3199 could use more reinforcements.