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Post 3628

Nov 17, 2017 By Steven R. Peck, Publisher

Michael Higgs brought some news to those in attendance at a recent Quilts of Valor ceremony in Riverton, where U.S. military veterans are presented with quilts made by local quilters.

He is in charge of Riverton Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3628, but maybe not for long. It's been general knowledge that the VFW has been a shrinking organization locally for a long time, but the local chapter commander put it in even starker terms. Post 3628 isn't just shrinking, it's dying.

To be a bona fide VFW post, a certain number of veterans must belong. Post 3628 no longer has enough members to qualify, and it stands to have its national charter revoked a little over a month from now unless more veterans sign up.

The struggle seems incongruous on its face, given that there is a healthy, almost obligatory new respect and admiration for veterans. Long gone are the days when movies such as "Stripes," "Private Benjamin" or "Platoon" could draw and entertain mass audiences either by making fun of the military or condemning it. There has been a change of heart in that regard. We are a flag-flying, veteran-thanking nation again.

Further, one of the principal benefits of membership - advocacy for veterans in government, education and social service functions - remains in place. Membership in the VFW is about a lot more than bingo night at the veterans hall. Post 3628 has helped a lot of people through the decades.

Those facts are obvious and incontrovertible - but numbers don't lie. There are not enough VFW members left to support Post 3628 as a formal entity. The members who remain comprise an aging demographic, with very few younger veterans expressing an interest.

The VFW has posted in Riverton for more than 80 years. It built its own headquarters, the familiar, low-slung building dug partially into a hillside on West Main. The post had to put that building up for sale some years ago. It's now a restaurant. 3628 has begun sharing quarters with the small remaining American Legion post in a smaller space in downtown Riverton, where veteran counseling and other assistance still is offered.

Simultaneous to the VFW's trouble has been the rise of other veteran-based entities that are doing better. The aforementioned Quilts of Valor program draws a big crowd to its annual events. Hunting With Heroes is a growing enterprise. The Soldier's House counseling center in Riverton has found footing. The Fremont County Veterans Memorial on the courthouse grounds in Lander succeeded in getting enough funding and other support to complete a major expansion recently. And support for veterans appears strong at the bumper-sticker level. Half the vehicles in Fremont County, it seems, sport a pro-military or pro-veteran message.

Is this fragmentation of efforts part of what has undercut the VFW? Perhaps. It's obvious that younger veterans don't see the appeal of membership that their fathers and, particularly, their grandfathers and great-grandfathers did. It's stark, but it's reality.

Public awareness probably can kindle a bit of renewed interest, but sentiment and nostalgia can't carry the day. This is a shame. Everyone agrees. Whether there is anything to be done about it other than shaking our heads is the existential question VFW faces locally.

Rule No. 1 for any struggling organization is simple: adapt or die. Could the VFW reinvent itself to the point that it could attract new members while still maintaining its core identity? Can it present an attractive combination of social engagement, recreation, counseling, advocacy and services during this time of competing providers in all those categories? It had better, if it wants to remain in our community as anything more than a fond memory.

Post 3628, you have served Riverton and its veterans well. Nothing that happens now can change what you've already done. A salute, and best wishes -- for the future.

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