When veterans come back from the military, they have some options: try to slip back into life as they knew it before, or find groups for those with common experiences that can help support them through the transition.
The latter is becoming less common with younger generations of service members.
Jody Frost, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, said the number of people seeking out those organizations has decreased.
Frost, who served from 1981 to 1984, never went overseas, and did not qualify for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. But she did serve as a member of the American Legion, and was their secretary for a while.
“I was the only woman, and one of the younger members,” she said.
The Hermiston Veterans of Foreign Wars post has about 300 members, though not all are active. Of those, only a few are women. Though numbers are dwindling overall for those organizations, the number of women that seek out those organizations is even lower.
According to a 2015 U.S. Department of Defense report, women make up 16.8 percent of the military, or about 357,276 members.
Amber Randall, an Air Force veteran who served in the early 2000s, said she and some of her peers keep in touch with other veterans through social media, including several Facebook groups, but it’s rare to find groups where younger veterans meet in person.
“A reason why the younger service members aren’t so close knit, I think, is because the other groups seem to be inundated with older vets that served in a totally different military,” she wrote to the East Oregonian. “As in, things were a lot different.”
Sonja Sallee is a member of the local VFW Auxiliary (a group for veterans, their spouses and immediate family members), as well as the on the board of the statewide organization. She said one of the reasons for the decline in enrollment could be simple numbers.
“I think part of it was that back then, 58 percent of the population were in the service,” she said, referring to World War II and Korean War veterans. “Now it’s about seven percent of the population.”
She noted that some women veterans would join the Auxiliary instead, because there weren’t many other women in the posts.
But Frost said when she was a member of the American Legion, she wanted to be treated as a veteran — which she said was difficult for some of the older members.
“They really struggled with me being in the room,” she said. “And there aren’t similar groups for people of my generation.”
Sallee and VFW Auxiliary President Phoebe Stephens speculated that there was a cultural shift, as well, with enrollment beginning to decline with Vietnam War veterans.
Sallee said many people of her generation, including herself, grew up with family members, like fathers or brothers, who were veterans, and becoming a part of the VFW or Auxiliary was common. The posts were not just a support group, but something of a social gathering place, as well as a way to volunteer and do community activities.
They still do that, Stephens said, including funding scholarships for youth, making quilts for veterans, and volunteering at local hospitals.
“There are lots of ways to be involved that don’t include going to meetings,” she said.
They said it’s possible the activities are not appealing to younger veterans and families. Now, she said, many service members end up going on multiple tours, and it’s possible they want to spend the time at home with their families, instead of going to meetings.
But, nationally, the organizations are dwindling.
“It’s hard,” Sallee said. “The national organizations are very aware of it. We have 80- and 90 year-old women in our auxiliary. Very few 20- and 30-year-olds.”
Though Frost said she eventually ended up leaving the organization due to some differing political opinions with other members — she disagreed with the national organization’s choice to feature President Donald Trump as a keynote speaker at an event — Frost said the sense of community with those organizations is important.
“I know (veterans) need it,” she said. “They’re coming back with significant trauma, and they need a safe place with people they can relate to.”
Tile Hamilton, now a special education assistant at Sandstone Middle School, said she did not join a group after leaving the military because she was too busy raising her family. But she said she liked the rapport she developed with others when she served in the Navy in the 1990s.
“I still miss the camaraderie,” she said. “Navy takes care of Navy,” she said. “Military people take care of military.”
Randall speculated that for some combat veterans, it’s difficult to relive the things they went through.
“The global war on terrorism and Operation Enduring Freedom was and still is traumatic,” she wrote. “A lot of lives were lost, and I’ve met several people that suffered from survivor’s guilt.”
She said she knows people who still suffer from the things they experienced.
“There were guys in my squadron who were very traumatized from driving a convoy and an RPG (grenade launcher) was launched and stuck in the windshield of their Humvee,” she said. “They only survived because it didn’t explode.”
Members of the current VFW and Auxiliary said their members have also dealt with the post-traumatic stress disorder that accompanies many veterans back from war. But they said being a member of such a group can help, if only to offer resources for dealing with the aftermath.
“It helps them get to the right people,” Stephens said. “They can get a lot of information for who to go see, who to get in contact with to get help.”