The tale of two Veterans of Foreign Wars posts about 20 miles apart might reflect the current general state of such national military veterans organizations.
Membership at VFW Post 5036 in St. Charles is about 200. According to Post Commander Jack Erwin, that exceeds the current goal by about 2%. Volunteerism is abundant, including a recent effort to aid Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit group that constructs affordable housing for those in need of it.
“I see us continuing to do better,” Erwin said. “We’re actually doing really well, compared to other posts.”
Among those other posts might be one in a community west of St. Charles along Illinois Route 64.
Membership at Sycamore VFW Post 5768 is about 100, almost two-thirds less than in the late 2000s. There are fewer veterans from World War II and the Korea and Vietnam conflicts, and former military from more-recent battles in the Middle East haven’t been replacing them, Post Quartermaster Laurie Emmer said.
“It’s hard to get the newer generation in,” she said about what’s become a national trend among fraternal organizations. “I think there’s a stereotype that sometimes people may be wary of wanting to check us out. They think we’re a bunch of old veterans sitting around the bar telling war stories.
“It is very hard to get people involved, and in some cases, I don’t think they know who we are or what we do.”
What some VFW and American Legion posts around northern Illinois are doing is holding their own amid ups and downs, according to their leaders.
Some of those posts attempt to lure new members through good works in their communities. Some promote their hospitality facilities, including bars and banquet halls. Some don’t have those facilities. Some have joined forces with similar groups, to help avoid redundancies and control expenses.
All of it helps the organizations fulfill their primary mission, according to Ken VanSickle, adjutant of American Legion Post 1231 in Lake in the Hills.
“We keep the doors open, and keeping the doors open helps us to provide to our veterans’ organizations,” he said. “Our main focus is the support of veterans and their families. That’s what we’re all in it for.”
Legion membership is open to anyone on active military duty or veterans who were honorably discharged. VFW members must be veterans who served honorably overseas in an area of foreign conflict.
The statewide Legion roster stands at about 36,000, according to Christy Rich of the Illinois headquarters in Bloomington. Annual recruitment for 2023-24 began July 1. The goal for this period is 60,377. The final total in 2018-19 was 74,236.
VFW membership in Illinois as of June 30 was 36,775, but as of late October, slightly more than 31,000 members had paid dues for 2023-24, according to Joe Bartley, adjutant-quartermaster of the Springfield-based state organization.
Bartley estimated the Illinois VFW loses 3 to 5% of its membership annually. Statewide membership in June 2018 was 48,153. This year, from July 1 through late October, 555 members have died but only 200 new members have joined.
In addition to deaths, Bartley attributes the decline to societal changes.
“People are just not joining organizations and volunteering like they used to five, 10 and 20 years ago,” he said in an email. “We are striving every day to portray what [we do] in our communities, what we do to support veterans and how we support families and children of veterans.
“By demonstrating that we are a purpose-driven veterans organization, we hope they see the important work that we do and how we contribute to a better life for them and their community and decide to join and become a part of those that are making a difference.”
In Lake in the Hills, Legion membership is about 280, according to VanSickle. That’s an increase of 15-20 over the previous year. Up by similar numbers is membership at Legion Post 902 in Rock Falls, according to Commander Darrell Mattson.
Most of the 200 or so Rock Falls members are Vietnam-era vets, as is Mattson, who was in the U.S. Navy. The post has a sprinkling of veterans from Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, but some newer members are in their 60s and retired from their post-service jobs.
“They’re busy, their lives are busy. After they retire, they’re looking for something to do,” Mattson said.
Members of the Lake in the Hills Legion and St. Charles VFW have plenty to do, to hear VanSickle and Erwin tell it.
A Legion motorcycle club helps raise money for the Lake in the Hills post. So do meat raffles and a recent chili cookoff, for which VanSickle was preparing his recipe.
St. Charles VFW members visit weekly with veterans in retirement homes in the Fox Valley and assist with vets’ funerals, according to Erwin. Such outreach also might help boost membership.
“I think just the cold sell is not that effective; you get maybe a cold shoulder,” said Erwin, an Army vet who served in Afghanistan. “I think it’s more important to focus on a person and an event. When they see us at the different events, it’s always a recruiting event, too: ‘If you need anything, call me.’”
Of course, the time-honored fraternal-organization tradition of on-premises bars still exists at many posts. Hall rental for wedding receptions and other events also is available. Mattson and VanSickle said their bar trade isn’t gangbusters, but it’s good enough.
Both those Legion-post bars offer video gambling. The Lake in the Hills post competes with four or five other such outlets within about one-half mile. When video gambling began in Illinois, the Legion post was among the first alcohol-serving establishments in the area to have it, according to VanSickle.
“I have never put a dollar in any of the machines, but it’s hit or miss,” he said about their business impact. “With so much of it around, it’s a draw, but I think it’s more an entertainment thing.”
The gambling machines at the Rock Falls Legion usually generate a small profit, according to Mattson.
“They enjoy sitting there, taking a little chance,” he said about gambling customers. “Most of them don’t lose a lot of money, and if they lose a little bit, they quit. I think it does add to our business. Some people might come in just for the video gaming. They’ll have a few beers.”
No video gambling, or even a bar, exists for the St. Charles VFW, which sold its building years ago. It rents space in St. Charles that has a kitchenette and meeting areas. The VFW shares it with three other veterans’ organizations, including the local Legion.
“This is more family friendly,” Erwin said. “And there’s not a lot of overhead, because we don’t have to run a restaurant or bar. A lot of veterans are getting older, and it’s hard to run all that.”
The Sycamore Veterans Club houses that city’s VFW and Legion posts, although it has a lounge and video gambling. The sharing arrangement has been in place since the 1950s, according to Emmer.
But some consolidations have resulted from recent necessity. Earlier this year, the Lake in the Hills Legion subsumed its counterpart in Cary. That post had only about 40 members, per VanSickle.
Emmer and her colleagues at the Sycamore VFW have been brainstorming about how to attract new members. It doesn’t appear they’ve made much headway so far.
“We’ve been in a rut,” said Emmer, an Afghanistan-era Army veteran and former VFW state commander. “It’s hard, because we used to do so much in the community. If we wanted to do a project for veterans or the community, we always had a lot of people. But our Vietnam vets are getting burned out.
“They worked hard for a long time and hoped to turn it over to the next generation, but there aren’t many of us.”
Emmer said she’s usually an optimist, but five or 10 years down the road is a concern if the current trajectory holds. Potential new Sycamore members need not be young.
“If a World War II veteran walked in our door, we’d take him in a heartbeat,” Emmer said.
Like Erwin and Mattson, VanSickle is cautiously bullish about his post’s future, although he acknowledges the current headwinds. He also is aware how veterans’ organizations, the VFW in particular, have eligible members in the first place.
“I think we’ll maintain. I think as long as you’ve got people willing to do it, I think we’ll do fine,” said VanSickle, who from 1982 until 2002 served in the Navy. “You’re definitely not in the prosperous days of the past, but … (you) never wish for a war.”