Military veterans aspire to be educators, historians, advocates

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The Veterans of Foreign Wars' post in Craig has 220 members. Still, it's a challenge to muster the 12 members needed for military ceremonies.

Post Commander Bud Nelson said most of the group's members are "on paper only." Only about 20 members are active.

"A lot of veterans join as life members, but it's really difficult to get them active in the post," he said. "That's the sad part."

A lack of participation and an aging membership make it difficult for the post to do what it's intended to do -- educate others about sacrifices, preserve history, encourage patriotism and most importantly, be an advocate for all veterans.

Fighting for benefits

And veterans need advocates, Nelson said.

"All the benefits promised us are being eroded and taken away from us," he said. "Veterans served this country and did what their contract required. Now, it's an uphill battle to get services unless we constantly stay on top of it, keep lobbying, keep fighting and keep standing up for veterans."

Nationally, Veterans of For--eign Wars was established in 1899 to secure the rights and benefits for veterans of the Spanish-American War. Con--gress chartered the organization in 1936, 18 years before President Dwight D. Eisenhower established Veterans Day.

Overcoming an image

Local posts gained the reputation of doing nothing but providing meeting places for men to drink alcohol and swap war stories, Nelson said.

That's an image the organization is working to overcome and one of the reasons Nelson thinks younger veterans aren't joining.

He estimates six members served in recent conflicts, including Gulf Storm or Iraqi Freedom. Most served in Vietnam, Korea or World War II.

"Kids in their 20s and 30s don't want to sit down with a bunch of men in their 60s and swap war stories," Nelson said.

If that's the perception of what the VFW does, Nelson said, it's not true.

"We're basically doing community service," he said. "We're here for the veteran."

Helping the community

Locally, the VFW post promotes patriotism by sponsoring youth "Voice of Democracy," "Spirit of Freedom" and "Patriot's Pen" writing and speaking contests. Participants win scholarship money or savings bonds and the chance to compete at the state and national level for as much as $10,000. But participation in such contests also is dwindling, Nelson said.

There is one entry in "Voice of Democracy," the deadline for which was this week.

VFW members provide a military burial for every veteran who dies in Moffat County. They've even conducted posthumous ceremonies for those who were later discovered to have served in a foreign war.

In the spring, members honored a man who served in the Spanish-American War with full services. The group placed a new headstone for him in the veteran's section of Craig Cemetery.

Members sent a video of the ceremony to the man's great-great grandson.

The VFW is not-for-profit, which means all the proceeds from its restaurant, bar and bingo games are returned to the community.

Although a person must have served in a foreign war to be a VFW member, any community member can eat at the restaurant or stop by the bar.

The VFW also contributes to the Needy Assistance Program, support members financially when there's a need and recently purchased a 2005 Ford minivan, which is used to transport veterans to and from medical appointments. The nearest veterans' hospital is in Grand Junction.

The club even chips in to pay the driver.

The VFW, with its auxiliaries, includes 2.4 million members in about 9,000 posts worldwide.

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 210, or ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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