Members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4265 listen as U.S. Army Ranger veteran Bob McConnell, center, tells a story before the Hometown Heroes Community Picnic on Saturday at Craig City Park. The VFW is currently recruiting younger members from recent conflicts for its membership.

Photo by Michelle Balleck

Members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4265 listen as U.S. Army Ranger veteran Bob McConnell, center, tells a story before the Hometown Heroes Community Picnic on Saturday at Craig City Park. The VFW is currently recruiting younger members from recent conflicts for its membership.

Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4265 seeking new members

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Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4265 color guard members Alvin Luker, left, and Guy Bradshaw, march Saturday during the Hometown Heroes Community Picnic at Craig City Park. Bradshaw, currently the youngest VFW members, hopes to change that by recruiting new members from recent conflicts.

Memorial Day events

• 9 a.m. Monday — Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4265 and American Legion Post 62 present a flag ceremony at Sandrock Ridge Care and Rehab Center, 943 W. Eighth Drive

• 11 a.m. Monday — VFW and American Legion present a Memorial Day service at Craig Cemetery

• 3 p.m. Monday — VFW and American Legion present a Memorial Day service at Maybell Cemetery

Quotable:

“There are a lot of veterans who are younger than me in this town. My job is to try to go out and get them.”

— Guy Bradshaw, member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4265, on finding younger members for the organization

Guy Bradshaw stands out among fellow members of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4265.

While many group members are veterans from the Vietnam era or older, Bradshaw, 34, was involved in the Iraq War.

As such, he might just be the youngest post member.

“Yep,” Bradshaw said. “Pretty much.”

But, Bradshaw won’t hold that distinction for long. Not if he can help it.

“There are a lot of veterans who are younger than me in this town,” he said of Craig. “My job is to try to go out and get them.”

However, recruiting returning veterans for the VFW is difficult. It’s not always clear where to look.

Bradshaw is a Craig native. He was in the U.S. Army for 12 years, from February 1995 to August 2006. He spent a year in Italy and Bosnia, three years in South Korea and a year in Iraq. When he left the military, Bradshaw held the rank of Sergeant first class, E-7.

In Iraq, Bradshaw, along with a group of fellow senior NCOs and officers, trained Iraqi police to fight.

“We trained light infantry,” he said. “They were policeman. … Our job was to train them to fight an insurgency war. Even though they were policeman, they were pretty much soldiers.”

Bradshaw said he was responsible for training 60 men. The work was difficult and frustrating. And, he said, there were issues of trust.

“There were insurgents imbedded with them,” he said of the Iraqi police. “We caught them from time to time, but I can’t go into details on that.”

Bradshaw said there was also a high rate of attrition among trainees because insurgents sometimes threatened their families.

Also, the Iraqi police dealt with equipment deficiencies.

“They’re running around in four-door Nissan pickups with barely any body armor, so you’ve go to give them a hell of a lot of credit,” he said. “We (American troops) have a chance of surviving through an (improvised explosive device attack). They don’t.”

After Bradshaw left the service, however, the Iraqi troops were receiving better equipment, such as Humvees, he said.

Now, back in Craig, Bradshaw is settling into his newest mission, he said. It’s much less of a life-and-death struggle, but it does pose challenges.

It’s difficult to recruit younger members for the VFW, he said. Returning troops have a lot on their plates.

“When you come home, you’re trying to raise your family and get established and all that,” he said. “But, I’m working on the younger guys.”

It’s difficult to know exactly how many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans live in Moffat County.

April Branstetter, a registered nurse at the Craig Veterans Telehealth Clinic, said her agency has numbers for the Western Slope.

“There are 1,200 vets that are already back from (Operation Iraqi Freedom) and (Operation Enduring Freedom),” she said. “Which is a lot.”

But, the number of OIF and OEF veterans living in Moffat County is a mystery, said Ed Wilkinson, Moffat County Veterans Service Officer.

“I don’t have anything that would indicate exactly how much I have here,” he said. “There are some OIF and OEF veterans, but if they don’t come back and talk to me, I don’t have any way of knowing that they’re here.”

Wilkinson, who is a member of American Legion Post 62 and an ex-officio member of the VFW, said it might take decades for veterans to join member groups. In his role as veterans service officer, he sees long delays between veterans’ discharge from service before they lay claim to their entitlements.

“Even now I get a few Vietnam vets who’ve never applied for any type of health services or claims or anything,” he said.

Wilkinson acknowledges that he waited 40 years to get involved.

The same is true for Mark Wick, commander of the VFW. He had been home from Vietnam for 30 years before he joined. He can relate to other vets’ hesitation.

“I know what it was like when I came home,” he said. “I wanted nothing to do with VFW, American Legion, or any of that stuff.”

Wick said he changed his mind nine years ago after being invited to a meeting by former Craig resident Charlie Watkins, who is now chief of staff for the Colorado VFW.

“I sat in on a meeting and I said, ‘You know, you guys are going in the right direction, you’re involved in the community, (and) it isn’t just a bunch of old beer slops sitting around the bar,’ he said.

“They’ve got something going. They have direction.”

Bradshaw said he hopes to help people to the same realization.

“People don’t understand what the VFW and the (American) Legion are about. They still have the misconception that we’re a bunch of old cronies who sit around and drink beer all the time, but that’s not the case.”

Bradshaw said the VFW performs community services such as offering scholarships, helping the elderly and more. And, the VFW can provide camaraderie for its own members.

“They’re people you can relate to,” he said. “Each war is different, each theater is different. Each branch is different. But, you can actually relate to people (in the VFW).

“And, you have people you can talk to if you want to talk.”

Talking, he said, can mean sharing combat stories.

“Every veteran struggles,” he said. “Two people can be in the same firefight, or the same battle, or the same place at the same time, and the way they relate to it are two totally different ways. So, I’d say there are a lot of people who struggle. I mean, I’ve had my bouts with it.”

Wick said the VFW could also use the help. Currently, the post has 195 members on its roster, but a small number of those members are involved in the group’s operation.

“I got my six-pack of five,” he said. “There are five people who do everything in this post.”

And, he said, a small crew isn’t sustainable for the long run.

“You know, we’re not going to stay here forever,” Wick said. “Some of us would like to move on, but we don’t want to let our organization go to hell.

“We’d like to be able to turn it over to someone who wants to be involved.”

Wick said he wishes he could find a list of OIF and OEF veterans returning to Moffat County.

“Boy, if I had that information, I would be targeting the daylights out of these guys,” he said.

In the meantime, Bradshaw has a message for any returning veterans in the county.

“Get off your (butts) and help,” he said. “If you’re a young vet, join.”

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