An unexpected but not unforeseeable outcome of the six-year war on terror is the renewed relevance of old-line veterans groups.
For years, relegated to smoky, boozy posts on the edges of town, traditional veterans groups such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars are front-and-center once again.
While it was once thought that post-Vietnam cultural wars would eventually force such groups to go the way of bowling leagues and social clubs named for animals, they have survived and are as important now than as ever before.
Disenfranchised Vietnam veterans, it was believed, would refrain from joining groups dominated by World War II veterans due to the generational gap and the unpopular nature of the Vietnam war. Veterans of future wars would follow the lead of others of their generations and disdain such old-line gatherings. Today, Vietnam veterans lead the VFW.
The very same concerns readjustment to civilian life and the need for adequate health care that spurred the formation of the VFW and the American Legion in prior years is leading today's veterans back to them.
There is no question that veterans groups still perform lonely and thankless duties with which members of the preoccupied public at-large want little, if nothing, to do. On Sunday, in observance of Memorial Day, for instance, members of American Legion District # 7 in Boston oversaw the solemn job of commemorating fallen soldiers, sailors, and marines at Mount Hope Cemetery.
Twelve members of an honor guard including two active soldiers wearing current issue desert fatigues stood before a stone memorial dedicated to "those who willingly offered life itself that man might be free." Boston's mayor, Thomas Menino, offered brief remarks. The poem, "Flanders Field," marking the deaths of Americans killed in World War I, was recited. But the crowd, for a nation at war, was sparse. If not for members of the Legion and other such groups, who would remember our war dead?
Since the defeat of the Axis Powers in 1945, finding veterans to remember our dead soldiers, sailors, and marines has not been a problem. Members of the World War II generation, which Tom Brokaw dubbed "the Greatest Generation," filled the ranks of veterans groups.
Now, those veterans are dying off at a rate of 1,000 a day. The posts they founded when they returned from Europe and the South Pacific are changing. "That old, gloomy, smoke-filled room that's not cutting it with the new generation of veterans," the communications director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Jerry Newberry, says.
Mr. Newberry reports that the VFW has gone back to its roots as a service and advocacy organization for veterans both currently in the military and those returning home from war. In some cases, members of local chapters look after family members of those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, or even cut the lawn of a family whose father has been away for too long.
The founding stories of the VFW and the American Legion remain relevant. The VFW grew out of two organizations formed after the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection around the turn of the century. Both of these events, when taken together, compare rather closely to the initial invasion of Iraq and the subsequent insurgency.
More Americans were killed in the Philippine fighting than in the initial defeat of the Spanish Empire, which commanded such blaring headlines of the original New York Sun newspaper among other papers. Veterans of that struggle came back to an indifferent America, often suffering from unique ailments such as malaria and yellow fever and minimal benefits.
The same is true with the American Legion. Main Street's demand for "normalcy" alarmed members of America's Expeditionary Force still based in Paris at the end of World War I. The veterans of that war heard of humiliating measures aimed at veterans, such as one in Chicago where those with facial wounds were required to wear masks or risk arrest. Veterans also received poor medical care at home, and thus, the Legion was created.
Like the VFW, the American Legion, which says it has a steady membership of 2.7 million, is focused on helping returning veterans. It has launched a program called "Heroes to Hometowns" designed to ease the burden of soldiers coming home. The group will help to coordinate everything from a welcome home celebration to a search for housing, employment, and health care for veterans.
A spokesperson for the American Legion, Wayne Habshey, says members have even helped to convince a local gym owner to make his facilities available to veterans for rehabilitation in lieu of a long and arduous trip to a Veterans administration facility hours away.
The combined 4.5 million membership number of the VFW and the American Legion don't represent the only Veterans groups in America. But they are still the biggest and have the most potential to help troops when they get home. At the least, they can help provide our warriors a place to be when they come back.
Mr. Gitell (gitell.com) is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.