Local veterans organizations find strength in numbers
By Melanie Rossi
BROWN COUNTY/KEWAUNEE COUNTY – “Membership is strength” for Wisconsin’s veterans organizations, and the stable rate of growth in the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ (VFW) Eighth District acts as evidence of that strength.
The Eighth VFW District of Wisconsin covers the state’s northeastern counties, including both Brown and Kewaunee Counties.
While recent years have seen the amount of posts in the district drop from 28 to 27, Bruce Sorensen, membership chairman of the eighth District, said, “the last four years we have hit one hundred percent membership each year, or more.”
These numbers become all the more impressive when taking into account the steady decrease in the number of Wisconsin’s veterans.
According to the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics, from the years 2000 to 2020, Wisconsin had a 31% decrease in its number of veterans.
For the next few decades, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs projects that the total veteran population in the United States will decline from 19.5 million in 2020 to 13.6 million in 2048.
In the Eighth VFW District of Wisconsin, however, despite a natural decline in membership over time, the last few years have been marked by stability.
“Say, for example, a member passed away,” Randy Hansen, quartermaster of the De Pere VFW Post 2113 said. “We did seem to find another veteran who is willing to join the VFW, and so it has stayed about the same. Our VFW Post in De Pere has about 78 members, and that’s been stable for about three years.”
For both Hansen and Sorensen, the key to maintaining this membership has been community outreach and recruitment efforts, especially to younger veterans.
“Our specific thing is our adopted unit, the 432nd [Battalion], and what we do to support them when they’re deployed,” Hansen said. “So we do that for both the soldiers who are deployed and the families who are left behind. Besides that we also do military funeral honors—even if they’re not a member of any organization we do honors for them.”
Hansen added that the De Pere VFW Post 2113 has also worked with the De Pere girls’ softball team, bought a new monument in partnership with the city council and parks’ department, has led the Memorial Day parade for the last 35 years and created a scholarship with Northeastern Wisconsin Technical College, which is open for student veterans or their family members.
Sorensen said, “Young veterans are not inclined to join the VFW because there’s that old stigma that all the VFW does is sit around in their VFW post, drink and tell war stories. That’s no longer true, and I can attest to that.”
Making young veterans aware of the active community work done in the VFW as well as proving to them the benefits they can receive through joining has helped to maintain the organization’s stability.
Sorensen said, “We do have recruiting events. . . Putting up booths and helping [young veterans] understand the value of what our organization does for them—they may not appreciate it right now because when you’re young you feel pretty invincible.”
According to Sorensen, just being a member of the VFW—not even an active one—is a benefit in itself.
“The VFW actually has a legislative group that resides in Washington DC, and what they do everyday is share legislation that is going before Congress to be approved, they hawk that and determine if that is going to have a negative or a positive effect on the VA benefits,” he said.
“When you raise your right hand and join the military, the government promised you that they were going to take care of you and your family once you served your time in the military. Therefore, we lobby to make sure our benefits stay in place… We have to lobby with our voice, and our voice is really the size of our membership, so we need to keep our membership strong so that the politicians’ ears stay open.”
Hansen added, “All veterans organizations have the common goal that maintains a strong national defense and to represent the interests of the entire uniformed services and their families and survivors by promoting compensation benefits, so what they get when they join us is not so much what can we do for them now as what can we do for them in the future for them and their families, and when they pass, their family survivors.
“By participating in a lot of the City of De Pere’s events and promotions, we’re also educating [the public] on what a veteran is, and how we can support them, so they get to take a part in that. It really does take a family of veterans to support other veterans”
Promoting their “family of veterans,” Wisconsin’s Eighth District has been able to keep their numbers up, maintaining the access to benefits that membership can provide.