Les Davis, MA, LBBP
FollowLes Davis, MA, LBBP
Independent Education Consultant at Claremont Lincoln University
Numerous articles, congressional discussions, as well as discussions at each individual VSO Leadership Meeting have exposed that these once proud institutions are losing thousands of members a year at an alarming rate, and fewer new members are joining. The legislative appeal to politicians is really no more than a check in the block to give a speech at the respective VSOs annual convention. In Washington, politicians count votes and they know about one-third of all members belong to the other major VSOs, and Veterans are leaving or not joining these VSOs. In the wake of these VSOs glaring ineptitude of keeping as well as attracting new members, new organizations have popped up to attract younger Veterans. In many cases, younger veterans view the “big three” (AMVETS, VFW, and American Legion) as being obsolete and irrelevant.
It’s time to consolidate and become ONE large Veteran Service Organization with ONE voice and ONE purpose. This new consolidated VSO would be restructured to assist our veterans with health care issues, employment and training opportunities, mental health resources, and organizing and assisting veterans who are filing VA claims during their transition, etc. All veterans need a legislative voice in Washington D.C., rather than delivering talking points to congressional oversight committees and sending out news releases each touting their meager accomplishments...and Bingo Night!
This new VSO has to attract the right leadership - Leaders dedicated to investing in members and enforcing the exclusivity of “Veterans Only” membership. Our Veterans deserve an organization that will advocate for them. The current VSO’s are outdated, out of touch, unappealing to new members, losing members, and have become irrelevant. The VFW, American Legion, DAV, AMVETS, and others should be consolidated into a single, more effective VSO. New leadership and new by-laws should be written to protect membership and put more pressure on the leadership to restructure its recruiting efforts and revitalize the VSO so this doesn’t happen again. We could take a little from each organization that would benefit the new VSO.
National/state/local leadership – All elected positions must represent all generations of veterans. If the National Commander is a Vietnam Veteran or WWII Veteran, the next in line has to be a Gulf War era or OIF/OEF era Veteran. Every position must represent a different generation.
Membership – AMVETS has the most open membership requirements and should be adopted by the new VSO. Believe it or not there are some veterans who don’t believe they are veterans because they didn’t deploy overseas. If you had ever served our country, whether it was in the National Guard, Reserves, or Active Duty, all would be welcome in this new Veteran Service Organization.
Cost of membership – We need to reduce the cost of membership to $15.00 per year, per member and do away with the lifetime membership. This would bring in a constant cash infusion into the new VSO and help fund current and new programs. Every member paying their membership fee consistently for 20 years would be given lifetime membership.
Marketing – The American Legion is more effective in this area than other VSOs, and are not shy about investing funds aimed at attracting new members. Their newer membership look and wording in the collateral is much better than the other VSOs. Marketing needs to be updated with a new fresh look to attract all generations of Veterans.
Social Media – Let’s face it - they all suck. The new VSO needs to hire a young social media staff who understands the positive impact social media can have on any organization.
National Service Officers – The new organization would adopt the DAV’s NSOs. I know this is a pride point with the VSOs, but VA claims are all the DAV does - and they do it better than the others. My personal experience with an American Legion National Service Officer was at the VA Hospital in Gainesville, Florida. I was in an elevator with a seasoned citizen American Legion NSO who was sitting on a scooter. In my attempt to strike-up a friendly conversation I said, “Good morning! Are you a National Service Officer?” He seemed a little irritated with me, let out a long sigh, and responded, “Yes, what do you want?” I replied, “Nothing. Just wanted to say ‘Good morning’.” The elevator doors had barely opened when the NSO zoomed off on his scooter. I can’t imagine what a young veteran would be thinking if he needed assistance or had a genuine question.
Hospital rides – The new VSO will continue hospital rides the DAV offers. With the VA Choice program gaining popularity, this program has to be monitored and evaluated annually.
Advocacy/Legislative – I believe the VFW has shown the best leadership when it comes to taking a stand on issues. I’m not saying I agree with everything they put out, but at least they make a stand. In most cases, the VFW is leading with important issues concerning all generations of veterans. Their partnership with the Student Veterans of America shows us they will advocate for the younger veterans.
Local Posts – The local community post would need to vote to join the new organization or apply for their own nonprofit status. If they joined the new modern VSO, they would need to become more attractive to all by adopting the following:
- Become non-smoking with a designated smoking area.
- Female Veterans will be welcomed and encouraged to be part of post leadership instead of being rejected and asked to join the auxiliary.
- All profits from the bar, bingo, games, donations, etc, must go toward veteran outreach programs.
- All elected positions must represent a cross generation of veterans as discussed earlier.
- Posts are required to have a quarterly New Membership drive that requires the post members to conduct outreach in their communities. All posts should review what VFW Post 1 in Denver, Colorado has accomplished in their outreach efforts and replicate where it makes sense.
- Riders – There’s no better group in each of the VSOs than the Riders. The Riders are a motorcycle association within the VSO. They do a lot in charity work within their respective communities, and believe in what they are doing. Of the Rider groups, The Legion Riders are the most organized and the new VSO should emulate their organization by adopting the Legion Riders' "Method of Operation", Constitution, and By-Laws.
Magazine – All the VSO magazines have become outdated, but in recent months the VFW magazine has produced articles about today’s veterans, highlighting the success of Post 1 in Denver, and has attracted other advertisers, rather than military rings and fitted pants exclusively.
There are many other beneficial programs that are not listed here, and those can be re-vamped and added as the VSO evolves and the need is established. However, we cannot afford to forget the reason that these organizations were started and we need to get back to those principles. We also need to invite all veterans’ organization to join this massive new VSO. I challenge the big 3 to lead this reorganization and save our voice before each VSO becomes so small that not even the local politicians will accept invitations to speak at your conventions. Along with the Big 3 invite everyone to come together as one entity. For example we could invite the VVA, NCOA, MOAA, the Jewish War Veterans of the USA, and the Italian War Veterans of the USA, the Catholic War Veterans of the USA and the American Ex-Prisoners of War to name a few.
The VSOs' current methods of tapping the next good ole boy in the leadership line to occupy the leadership chair is antiquated, and entrenched leadership, similar to professional political hacks, is a real issue that must be addressed prior to consolidation efforts. For decades, most VSOs have done nothing but promote this systemic "good ole boy" attitude in appointing/electing the next "chosen one" in leadership line, and it's time to stop this nonsense!
It’s going to take bold leadership, creativity, and flexibility to put this together and lead it. It's time to be a "change" leader, proactively thinking of the future, and how best to serve all of our Veterans - Past, Present, and Future!