Jenkins VFW seeks members
Several issues have created a shortage of members nationwide for VFWs.
JENKINS — The Jenkins Veterans of Foreign Wars club is in dire need of new members. The club is in particular need of younger members, though the definition of "young" isn't too restrictive.
"And when I say younger members, we mean 40, 50 or 60 years old," said John Warren, gambling manager.
Locally, while the club has roughly 200 members as a whole, there are fewer active members. Most of the members are of an advanced age.
"We have currently about six or seven active members who help make decisions for the post," said Joe Klatt, post commander. "A lot of people don't participate in our meetings or help to guide the post to go in the right direction for what we need to keep going.
"A good majority of our 200 or so members are probably in their 70s, 80s or 90s," Klatt said. "I think that's country wide with veteran organizations losing their membership."
The stagnant and aging membership numbers has had an unfortunate impact on the club's operations. Older members are more prone to health issues and death by old age.
"It's a sad state of affairs," said Warren. "We've lost probably 15 members. In the color guard we've lost maybe five or six."
"There's been talks of why we aren't having a soup cook-off or a chili cook-off or baking events," Klatt said. "And even with the color guard. We don't have the people. In the Cities there are (around ) 20,000 people in the area. Between Brainerd and Baxter you have 5,000 people. Jenkins has 469, and how many of those are veterans? How many of those veterans actually want to participate? It's tough to get bodies to do some of these things."
"Like Joe said, we have about 200 members but a whole lot of them are from outside the area," said Larry Nelson, quartermaster adjutant. "They aren't able to come to the fullest. We're encouraging younger people to join the post. They're out there, they just need to know we're here for them."
The shortage of active membership numbers is a national issue. Even at the largest VFW post in the nation, with 4,000 members, Nelson said there were fewer than 10 people at the meeting he attended there.
Klatt said he's seen several VFW posts close for lack of membership. Closure of the VFW can send ripples throughout a community thanks to the services they offer.
"One of the things we do every year nationally is the Patriot's Pen and the Voice of Democracy Program," said Klatt. "They come up with a topic for kids to write on. Each of our schools in the area - Pequot Lakes, Pine River and up to Backus - have students write essays and then the Voice of Democracy is more of an oral speech program. We pick the best ones. They go to state. If they make it past there they offer scholarship funds, usually $1,500 per school."
Winners then can be sent to the district, state and national levels for up to $40,000 in scholarships.
This is only a part of how the VFW reaches out to community members. The local club has its own scholarships for area students raised from lawful purpose gambling. Warren said in 2021 the Jenkins club distributed $88,789.74 to the community through scholarships and other programs.
"Food shelves, the library, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts," Warren said. "We get requests on almost a daily basis from different organizations or individuals in need. We're a nonprofit, veterans organization and that's where the gambling money goes. We not only have the best meat raffle in the state, we also have regular paper pull tabs, e-tabs and link bingo."
The Jenkins VFW has long been part of the Pequot Lakes Memorial Day program in the Pequot Lakes High School auditorium. They usually alternate with the Pequot Lakes American Legion each year; however, that event would be more complicated now with fewer color guard members.
This past year the club also hosted holiday meals for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Finally, the VFW rents its hall space for weddings and other events. For members, this service is free.
The business side of the VFW is facing the same challenges as other area businesses.
"I think, generally speaking, the post is doing OK as far as sales and people coming in," Klatt said. "It's tough to get employees. We have a full kitchen. We've tried to hire a cook but we haven't been able to keep anybody on staff. Our previous manager was able to work with a local food truck, Skol Foods, and get him in here and that seems to be working fairly well."
New members and new employees are the solution to most of the club's issues. VFW and American Legion clubs across the nation are facing the same issue of attracting newer and younger members. Part of the shortage is due to qualifications.
Congress is responsible for deciding who qualifies for a VFW membership, and in some cases those limitations have restricted membership. As the name says, members must be veterans who fought in a foreign war.
Not all military members qualify, not all combat engagements count, and some events - such as those in Kosovo - didn't include many service members.
"The Vietnam era group is a tight group that's grown in age," Klatt said. "We had a space of time between the mid-'70s and '80s that didn't have a lot going on ... that qualified people to become members of the VFW."
The gap between qualifying foreign wars has actually made it hard to bridge the gap between the older generation members and the newer members.
To complicate the situation more, Klatt said that because Iraqi Freedom and the war in Afghanistan kept younger service men and women away from home and family for so long, those potential members aren't necessarily excited to sign up just yet for something that might keep them busy.
"They spent so much time away from home, who wants to do something else?" Klatt said. "In my time, I've known guys who got out of the field and have just virtually vanished from any veteran organization. They just want to be on their own."
For those who risked and paid so much, the VFW is not just about continuing to serve their community. Membership with a group like the VFW can benefit combat veterans in many ways.
"There's a lot of programs within the VFW itself to help veterans," Klatt said.
Programs include grants and scholarships for family members, help with VA claims, emergency financial relief, connections to mental health programs and more.
In addition, VFW groups are seeking new members not only to keep the clubs alive, but to bring new ideas to the club and make it their own.
"We need to encourage younger people to come and join the post," Nelson said. "They can help make the post into the post that they want it to be and give us new ideas. Take the horse by the reins, I guess you might say."
Guidelines for who qualifies to be a VFW member are available online at https://www.vfw.org/join/eligibility.
"We're all brothers and sisters and we all have each other's backs," Klatt said. "This is what this place is for. It was meant to be a place where veterans can feel at home, and if they need to spill their guts about something, another veteran will sit there and listen without judging."
Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org.