By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Today, in American Legion posts and Veterans of Foreign Wars halls across Greater Cincinnati, veterans of past wars will remember comrades who fell in battle decades ago.
They also will remember the men and women whose war is not yet over, the Americans in uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Nobody understands what those young men and women are going through over there like guys who have gone through it themselves," said John A. Brieden III, a Vietnam veteran from Texas who is national commander of the 2.7-million-member American Legion.
Vietnam-era veterans now make up the largest group among the membership of the American Legion, having surpassed World War II-era veterans in recent years.
Both the American Legion and the VFW have created outreach programs aimed at aiding active-duty military serving in Iraq and their families back home. It is beginning to pay off as some returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have joined local posts of the service organizations, including many in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.
Pfc. Matt Maupin of Union Township joined American Legion Post 72 in Mount Carmel about two months before being captured April 9 in Iraq.
Ron Hartman, commander of Post 72, said he was invited to speak to the Clermont County Armed Services Support Group, an organization of military families, and gave Maupin's mother, Carolyn, a membership application, which she sent to her son in Iraq and which he returned.
Since then, Hartman said, the Mount Carmel post has picked up a half-dozen members who have served in Iraq.
At the American Legion's J.B. Yeager Post 199 in Harrison, a dozen Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have joined in the past year, said Jerry Wilson of Harrison, the past Ohio commander of the American Legion.
One of them is his son, Sgt. Gerold "Woody" Wilson, an active-duty soldier who was recently wounded in combat and has been recuperating at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
Left, Jerry Wilson is an Army Vietnam veteran and a past state commander of the American Legion. His son Jerrold (Woody) Wilson is a staff Sgt. in the Army, was wounded in Iraq and is a member of the American Legion, both at Post 199 in Harrison.
(Tony Jones photo)
"We made a point of recruiting the young people," said Jerry Wilson, a Vietnam veteran. "It's important to have some new blood."
At the VFW's Lawler-Hanlon Post 5662 in Newport, members welcomed Daniel Keane, a young soldier from Newport, to their ranks last summer, after Keane's artillery company returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. Larry Rininger, commander of Post 5662, said Keane is now in Germany.
"I pinned the VFW pin on his chest myself," said Rininger, a Vietnam veteran.
As the WWII generation who sustained the veterans' organization for decades falls away to old age, it is the new generation of veterans being created every day as troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan that keeps organizations like the American Legion and the VFW going.
"Getting new members is not the primary purpose of us trying to help the service man and woman of today," said Brieden. "We do it because they deserve our support."
The makeup of the American Legion has changed in recent years, with a large influx of Vietnam veterans, Brieden said.
"For a lot of years, the Vietnam veterans stayed away from the veterans' organizations, probably because of the cold reception they got from the country when they came back from war," Brieden said.
"There was a lot of bitterness. But our Vietnam generation is getting older; a lot of guys have grown children and grandchildren. They've decided it is time to come home."
From the 1960s through the 1990s, the World War II generation was the largest group in the Legion. But in the past few years, Vietnam-era veterans have surpassed them in numbers.
Today, among the 2.7 million American Legion members, about 31 percent are Vietnam veterans and nearly 29 percent served in World War II.
Today, though, the focus is on appealing to the youngest generation of the American military. Consider:
The American Legion's headquarters in Indianapolis has set up a scholarship fund for children of U.S. military, National Guardsmen and reservists who have been put on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001.
Both the American Legion and the VFW have established military support centers around the country where families of active-duty military can come for emergency financial assistance and other support.
On its Web site, the VFW has asked its 2.6 million members to send letters of support to the family of Maupin.
The American Legion has encouraged its local posts to show support by sending its members to the deployments of local units to Iraq and to visit wounded Iraq soldiers in local VA hospitals.
"We don't expect all the Iraq veterans to join up the minute they come home. There will be a lag time of years before that happens," Brieden said.
"But someday, they will remember we were there for them."
From the 1960s through the 1990s, the World War II generation was the largest group among the membership of the American Legion. But Vietnam-era veterans have passed the WWII veterans. In 2003, the American Legion's 2.7 million members broke down as follows:
Vietnam era: 31.4 percent
World War II: 29.9 percent
Korea: 20.2 percent
Persian Gulf War: 3.2 percent
Lebanon/Granada: 2.9 percent
Panama: 1.2 percent
World War I: 0.1 percent
Merchant Marines: 0.1 percent
Source: American Legion
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