116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Derrick Claye hunches down next to Navy veteran Bill Dittmar of Cedar Rapids for a quick chat before lunch is served at the Freedom Foundation in northeast Cedar Rapids.
Behind them, a pair of Vietnam War vets shoot pool and playfully rib one another as volunteers begin serving plates of pasta, breadsticks and salad.
The room is filled with more than 70 veterans. Save for Claye and a few others, nearly all are well over the of age 65, with Korean and Vietnam veterans making up the bulk of those gathered.
Claye, a 34-year-old staff sergeant in the Iowa National Guard who deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, is the newest and youngest board member of the veterans' organization. The nonprofit provides programs and services for veterans, including a food pantry, employment placement program, a temporary housing and shelter program for homeless and displaced veterans, a veterans emergency financial assistance fund, and a free weekly meal.
“A lot of the veterans around here will say, ‘Hey, it’s great to see an actual young face in here,” Claye said. “So it’s not a secret or anything that (veterans service organizations) are struggling to see the younger people.”
More than two decades after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the nation’s oldest and largest veterans’ service organizations are seeing their ranks diminish with the deaths of World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans, and the hesitancy of younger veterans to fill the void and join legacy groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Legion. It comes at a time when veterans advocates say programs and services for 9/11 vets are needed just as much now as they were generations ago.
Some posts across the country have shut their doors or restructured due to low membership, a shrinking veteran population and being unable to bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic, which strained finances, participation and outreach.
Both the VFW and American Legion say Vietnam-era veterans make up the largest portion of their membership. Only about 15 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are eligible to join the VFW have done so.
Membership in the VFW peaked at 2.1 million in the early 1990s. It is down to about 1.5 million today. The American Legion claims nearly 2 million members, down from 3.1 million three decades ago.
Veterans of the war on terrorism interviewed by The Gazette say they see the veterans groups as fraternities of older men from previous wars, who primarily hang out in dimly lit beer halls playing pool, darts or cards. They say the traditional organizations differ in many ways from groups that appeal to them, including their ways of communicating.
“The Iraq and Afghanistan vets are like the digital age, you know,” said Jason Everett, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran who serves in the Iowa National Guard and works for Willis Dady Homeless Services.
The nonprofit provides shelter, case management, homeless prevention and veteran support in Cedar Rapids and the surrounding area.
“I came back from deployment and played ‘Call of Duty’ for a year and a half or two years and went to college and didn’t connect with anybody,” said Everett, who deployed with Claye and joined him Thursday at the Freedom Foundation luncheon. “I think we haven’t figured out how to reach out and get these Iraq and Afghanistan vets who are in their basements and are not civically connected and get them out and to be connected.
“And we haven’t found new, innovative ways to speak their language and connect to them in a way that’s best for them.”
Iraq and Afghanistan veterans say they are looking for groups that allow them to stay active, continue to serve their country and interact with civilians to help reintegrate into society after serving overseas.
They say it’s important for younger veterans, who have been part of an all-volunteer force, to be able to continue to serve their community and country.
Ken Holvenstot is a 37-year-old Iraq veteran and member of VFW Post 788 in Cedar Rapids.
“I wasn’t done serving,” Holvenstot said of joining the VFW, American Legion and Marine Corps League.
“And as a younger veteran, that was something that was more special to me than going and having a pint every once and a while at the pub and sharing stories,” he said. “You know, I really wanted to have that bond and have that mission. Because, when you’re in the military you have a mission, and when you get out of the military your mission is different. And if you don’t have a mission, then that’s when you start to get into … drugs or gambling or alcohol or abusive natures.”
Holvenstot served in the Marines from 2005 to 2010, and completed two tours in Iraq. Afterward, he’d get divorced and struggled with alcohol before finding his way to the American Legion, a new wife and martial arts.
“My thinking is I needed a mission and I wanted to continue to serve,” he said. “But, not a lot of people understand that or see that option” and opportunities to connect and communicate with “veterans of all different types and from all walks of life.”
“You will find hope, no matter what it is,” Holvenstot said of joining veterans service organizations.
Dakota Andrew, a disabled Navy veteran and outreach specialist and career planner in Cedar Rapids, also said such groups fail to reflect the increasingly diverse veterans who are replacing the older, predominantly male veterans.
“We need to open up the diversity and change the demographics” of legacy veteran services organizations like the VFW and American Legion, Andrew said. “Whether it’s recognized or not, other demographics of veterans are popping up … like women veterans.
“That is a demographic now that is real, and there are specific needs that that demographic really has.”
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates there are more than 15,000 women veterans in Iowa, with women representing the fastest-growing veterans group in the country.
Like the Freedom Foundation’s Claye, Holvenstot has recruited his friends to join, took on leadership roles and is working to change the organization into something that fits younger veterans’ needs.
“I’ve seen a lot of the good things the VFW does that not a lot of people get to see,” Holvenstot said. “We don’t promote any of this stuff, which is the worst part about it.”
An outdated image
Part of the problem in recruiting younger veterans, Holvenstot said, is the VFW’s difficulty in explaining what services it provides. He said most younger veterans think of the local VFW Post as just a bar.
Rick Martin said it’s a common misperception that the organization is working its “damndest to change.”
“We’re trying to get an image out there other than being just a social, beer-drinking, smoking old farts’ sea-story-telling group,” he said.
Martin served for 10 years as adjutant of VFW Post 788 and currently leads its community service.
He and other local veterans organizations acknowledge that they need to do a better job of explaining what they offer, including assistance with benefits claims, counseling referrals, scholarships, grants, volunteer opportunities, job placement and advocacy on Capitol Hill for veterans legislation.
VFW service officers can also help veterans navigate the bureaucracy of the Department of Veterans Affairs, helping to submit forms and file appeals if benefits are denied.
Martin, though, notes the local VFW is making inroads and has had recent success recruiting 34 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to become members.
"We made it a point of establishing contact with the (local) Iowa National Guard when they were deployed,“ he said. ”We sent them care packages and we welcomed them back from their deployments to our post. We tried to make it a welcome organization to belong to. Some of whom have become active members.“
Martin, though, acknowledges the VFW could do a “better job of welcoming young people” and promoting itself as a family-friendly group.
“We are an organization that is vibrant,” he said. “It’s alive. We walk the walk, not just talk the talk, about doing more for veterans.”
Iowa City VA Health Care System
Cedar Rapids Vet Center
Providing free counseling and support to wartime veterans and their families
Veterans Crisis Line: 24/7, confidential crisis support for veterans and their loved ones. Dial 988, then press 1, or text 838255.
Homeless or Near Homeless Veteran in Linn County
Willis Dady Homeless Services
1247 4th Ave SE
Cedar Rapids, IA 52403
Phone: (319) 362-7555
For shelter call (319) 366-7999
Veteran Employment Services:
Iowa Workforce Development
IOWAWORKS CENTER — Cedar Rapids
4444 First Avenue NE, Suite #436
Cedar Rapids, IA 52402
1240 26th Avenue Court SW
Cedar Rapids, IA 52404
609 Center Point Road NE
Cedar Rapids IA 52402 U.S.
A new building and new possibilities
At the Freedom Foundation, the group is gearing up for a move to a new, bigger space next year — one Claye and other board members hope will be more attractive to younger veterans.
Fellow board member and volunteer Matt Dlouhy, of Atkins, said the group has raised more than $350,000 toward a “bare-bones” goal of $750,000 to renovate the Local Craft Ale House at 4001 Center Point Rd NE.
“A very generous donor has bought the building and it’s on our back to do the renovations,” Dlouhy said, adding the group has also applied for local grant funding.
Board members say the Freedom Foundation has outgrown its space in a small commercial building near Coe College at 609 Center Point Rd NE.
The group has reached capacity serving about 70 veterans a week at its Thursday luncheon, whereas the new space will allow the foundation to serve up to 100 veterans at a time, Dlouhy said.
He said the new building offers a better, more visible location next to a city bus stop that will make it easier for veterans to get to.
And the added space provides opportunities for outdoor seating and recreation, hopefully, making the foundation more appealing to a new generation of veterans gravitating toward groups that allow them to stay active, said Roger Jensen, vice president of the Freedom Foundation.
Jensen and Claye said board members are also working toward hiring a licensed counselor.
“I’ve had some friends that have severe (post-traumatic stress disorder) issues, and it shouldn’t be one of those issues where … we’ll put you on a chart and we might be able to get you in in the next month, because sometimes it’s too late,” said Claye, who lost a friend and fellow veteran to suicide.
“We can’t really help with the VA side of it, but what we can do is get them other resources,” he said, noting the unease among some 9/11 veterans to seek mental health services directly through the VA.
“A lot of people don’t like talking about their feelings and stuff behind closed doors” at a clinic, Claye said. “But, you get them out in a (social) environment, you know, shoot pool or whatever, they’re more open to talk about what they’re feeling about, especially if they’re around friends. … I think it will benefit us quite a bit having somebody out here versus sitting inside of an office.”
Everett, the Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, agreed.
“I think one of the best ways to begin answering the question of how do we connect with younger vets is get some of these Iraq, Afghanistan vets into these positions that can offer a voice and some perspective,” he said. “You see some of these people joining in leadership positions and I think that’s a good step forward, but we need to engage more in the conversation.”
Everett added: “The VFW used to be called the Old Man’s Club. … And I think they’re just changing now.”
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