November 26, 2021

Veterans groups looking for women, young vets to join

Changing of the guard?

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Brenda Clark, a member of Homer’s American Legion Post 465, stands next to the Cortland County Women’s Veterans Memorial in Cortland’s Courthouse Park. While there are more women veterans than before, local veterans groups are trying to figure out ways to get more women veterans.

Amanda Gallow practically grew up in Cortland’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Tiougnioga Post 2354.

As a kid, the now-31-year-old would frequently attend meetings and events there with her family.

“People were always buying me soda and candy whenever I came,” she said.

Now, the post’s commander, Gallow is also the only regularly active female veteran at the post, which only has maybe one or two other female veterans who don’t actively participate, she said.

According to a 2017 report by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, women make up a little more than 9% of all living veterans. By 2043, that number is projected to grow to more than 16%.

Yet female veterans are not joining local veterans groups like the VFW, American Legion or Disabled American Veterans in correlation to these numbers.

Veterans Day activities

Here are some Veteran’s Day events happening in Cortland County:

• Veterans of Foreign Wars Tioughnioga Post 2354 in Cortland will offer cider and doughnuts beginning at 8 a.m. At 11:11 a.m., a short ceremony will be held outside the post to honor veterans.

• American Legion Post 465 in Homer is offering a free chicken and biscuit take-out meal for veterans from 3 to 7 p.m. Non-veteran guests can also buy meals for $10 for adults, $5 for children and children under 5-years-old eat free.

• Veterans can get a free meal from Gorgers on Main Street in Cortland from 12 to 4 p.m. with proof of service. Veterans can also be nominated and eligible to receive a free gift from Lowe’s in Cortlandville. To nominate a veteran, send a private message to the Cortland Police Department or Office of Cortland Community Policing’s Facebook page.

• The Groton Rotary and Bun Appetit Bakery plans a Wreath Across America event from noon to 3 p.m. Buy a $15 wreath through the club and get two more. The wreaths will be placed on veterans’ graves at the Bath National Cemetery on Dec. 19.

With Veteran’s Day approaching, local veterans’ groups leaders and female veterans offered differing reasons as to why this is including the smaller number of female veterans to their male counterparts, stereotypes and misconceptions regarding veterans groups and the business of younger veterans’ lives.

Changing times, changing priorities

Gallow, who is in the New York State Army National Guard and who was deployed in Kuwait for nine months in 2012, recognized that more women than ever are serving in all branches of the military, but they are still outnumbered by men.

Her involvement in the post can belinked to two key factors: the close connections and memories she’s made going to it growing up and the opportunity it offers to speak with other veterans.

“The bond you have, it’s like that close-knit family,” she said. “You get each other.”

This is especially true with devastating military experiences including the loss of friends through combat or suicide.

The bigger problem she sees, though, is the lack of all veterans from more recent conflicts.

Most of the members in Cortland’s VFW are Vietnam or Korean war veterans, said Norm Stitzel, the public relations officer for the post and leader of Cortland’s MarineCorps League group.

“The younger generation doesn’t think it’s for them,” Gallow said. Like Stitzel, she noted the majority of veterans at the post tend to be from older conflicts, which she thinks can deter younger veterans as they think the generational gaps will prevent understanding of experiences.

Younger veterans as well may be too busy for veterans groups as well, Stitzel said.

Many veterans who have returned from recent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere are more focused on going back to school or work than spending time with a veterans group.

“It’s a different time and different mindset,” Stitzel said.

Additionally, the smaller number of veterans in recent conflicts contributes to less camaraderie in joining these groups as well, he said.

Attitude on groups

The perception and attitudes older veterans used to have toward women and younger veterans also plays a part, said Mike McDermott, the commander of the New York State American Legion and a past commander for Homer’s American Legion Post 465.

McDermott said places like the VFW and American Legion used to be seen as boys clubs where old veterans would get together, drink and smoke.

“I think those days are gone,” he said.

These groups, he said, are more family friendly now and are more active in the community.

These changes have also included women.

Brenda Clark, a member of Homer’s American Legion, said she was treated differently from her male counterparts when she joined a post in Cicero in the 1990s. Men encouraged her to join the post’s auxiliary group, which historically was only forwomen, instead of the post proper, she recalled.

Additionally, a keycard lock was later installed for the post’s building but she never received a card to enter, despite her male counterparts receiving them.

It was a different story when she moved to Homer in 2003 and joined its group.

“They welcomed me with open arms,” she said. “It’s a really good group of guys.”

Clark said she was treated no differently than any of the male veterans, treating her in a friendly, respectful manner. She was also given an active role, taking meeting minutes.

Clark suggested fewer women may join because there are fewer female veterans in general.

More broadly, she thought, people may not be joining asmuch in the past as people are not sure what they would get out of joining a volunteer group.

“What I think it comes down to is an individual having a civic mindset,” she said. “It kind of depends what level of involvement people want in their community and to be involved in.”

Getting more women to join will require groups to provide similar experiences and opportunities to what Clark had, she said.

Turning the page or finishing the chapter?

Gallow, Stitzel, McDermott and Clark all had differing views on what should or might happen with these groups in the future.

For Gallow, the VFW is working to get more families involved and to reach out to younger veterans through community events.

Her daughter, Hallie Beckwith, sells beads with proceeds going to the post.

Additionally, the post is working on expanding its social media on Facebook and potentiallycreating an Instagram page to connect with younger veterans.

At Homer’s American Legion post, the group holds chicken barbecues on Veterans Day and gives out cider and doughnuts to kids on Halloween — though that was canceled this year because of the pandemic — McDermott said.

Additionally, the organization continues to promote its Boys and Girls State programs alongwith the different scholarships they offer to get children and teenagers involved.

They also hold family-friendly events like decorating memorials around Memorial Day and Toys for Tots donation drives, McDermott and Clark said.

“That’s what the Legion’s all about — a family affair,” McDermott said.

For Stitzel though, perhaps the lack of women and younger veterans at places like the VFW and Disabled American Veterans is a natural evolution, he said. “It’s just kind of the changing of the times,” he said. “VFWs and Legions kind of had their times.”

Stitzel recognized that veterans groups were important to World War II and Korea veterans and their families, but a shift started to happen with Vietnam veterans.

Feeling that they weren’t treated with the same respect as veterans of other wars, many Vietnam veterans founded their own veterans groups for the war, such as Dryden’s Vietnam Veterans of America New York Chapter 37, he said.

Younger veterans may create similar groups, but nothing is certain.

Despite this, Stitzel said the VFW and the other veterans groups he’s involved with are always welcome to new members, especially the younger ones.

“To me, it’s extremely important for veteran posts to appeal to the younger veterans,” he said. To get more women, though, Clark believes getting rid of the old stereotypes and misconceptions might be the first way to do that.

“Way too many people think the VFW and American Legions are places where people come to drink,” she said. That image isn’t accurate, as Homer’s American Legion hosts other events like card clubs, but needs to be dealt with nonetheless.

“That’s something we need to overcome to make people see that’s not what an American Legion or VFW is all about,” Clark said.