August 25, 2009, 9:43PM
Veterans groups, facing the loss of their oldest members, are reinventing themselves as family-friendly, forward-looking clubs for the recently deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. And the generation gap, which put World War II vets on one side of the old hall and Vietnam vets on the other, appears closed.
Older vets are banding together to reach the newest veterans, hoping to rebuild their organizations, offer military families comfort and support one another.
Nowhere is the trend more obvious than on a single square block on Boones Ferry Road in Tualatin, where a hole in the ground is all that remains of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3452.
Today, the Tualatin VFW will open a new hall, named for Marine Cpl. Matthew Lembke. The honor, just six weeks after Lembke died from wounds sustained in Afghanistan, is a reminder of how popular the Tualatin High football player was in his hometown.
But it’s also an indication that this is not your father’s VFW.
Since 1951, the veterans in that area padded down stairs to meet in the basement-level concrete headquarters where musty smells arose from frequent floods. Even the framed charters on the walls were water-stained.
“No matter how many cosmetic changes we made,” said former post commander and Vietnam Navy vet Dale Potts, “it was still a dump.”
The vets swapped the old site for the top floor of the 1912 Robinson building, the oldest commercial building in Tualatin. Developer David Emami had saved it from demolition.
Inside the new headquarters, toffee-colored walls and tasteful carpet make Lembke Hall feel more swanky Starbucks than smoky canteen. A new commercial kitchen sits off a cozy coffee bar. Post Commander Ron Holland is already preparing for the return of the Oregon Army National Guard’s 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team from Iraq next May. He plans practical seminars on employment, schooling and health, and family issues. And yes, 12 soldiers from the 41st have joined so far.
“Times have changed. The smoky, dingy old clubhouse is certainly not going to attract this new generation of veterans,” says Jerry Newberry, national director of communications for the VFW. “They’re family oriented. They’ve served multiple deployments and had a lot of time away.”
The VFW requires service in war or an imminent danger area to become a member. Since membership peaked at 2 million in the 1990s, the organization has shrunk to less than 1.6 million as World War II vets have aged or died. Across the nation, many of the posts built 60 years ago have outlived their maintenance budgets, leases and neighborhoods. Tigard, Sherwood, Wilsonville and Lake Oswego all have shuttered their VFW posts in recent years.
The Tualatin post serves area vets and their relatives. The post is launching a new men’s auxiliary — like the women’s auxiliary — to attract any male member in the Southwest Portland area who has a sibling, child, grandchild, spouse, parent or grandparent who served in a war overseas or under hostile fire.
A vital post with plenty of members, they say, provides immediate benefits to all veterans, from armloads of hand-sewn quilts and neck pillows delivered to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center to emergency grants, free phone service for deployed soldiers and a national lobbying effort on such issues as the new GI Bill.
But it also gives older vets a sense of purpose. Many of the men and women leading posts today are Vietnam veterans still stung by World War II and Korean vets who shut the youngsters out.
Last week, Thomas Laing, who served as a Marine in Vietnam and is the national vice chairman for military service, traveled to the VFW convention with Shane Addis, a Eugene Marine reservist who served in Iraq. Their goal: stage the Telling Project, a play by and about soldiers that started in Oregon, at the next national convention.
“The Vietnam vet wants to make sure they don’t get treated the way we were treated,” Laing says.
Newberry says that instinct has its roots in military service.
“In combat it’s all about taking care of your buddy, not about the flag and the Constitution. Being a member of a veterans group gives you the opportunity and ability to continue to take care of your buddies,” he says.
Many older vets are doing that by belonging to multiple organizations. Some are starting new ones.
Eighteen months ago, three older vets started meeting on Mondays at Jake’s Diner in Bend to talk about how to help. Today, with no formal organization, the “Bend Band of Brothers” numbers 105 and ranges in age from 25 to 96, says organizer Dick Tobiason. They’ve helped pass a law declaring U.S. 97 “World War II Veterans Historic Highway” and will break ground Thursday on a World War II memorial in Bend.
They also have several flag campaigns and have presented commemorative medallions and coins to the families of the 115 Oregonians killed in action since 2001.
Bill Bussey traveled to Tualatin on Tuesday to present Claudia and Dale Lembke and their daughter Carolyn with medallions as well as Dave and Sandy Troyer of Sherwood, whose son, Marine Lance Cpl. Tyler J. Troyer, died last year in Iraq.
Sandy said: “It means so much that you guys are doing this.”
The families received the medallions and coins while Bob Maxwell, the state’s only living Medal of Honor Recipient, watched. Maxwell was honored after falling on a hand grenade on Sept. 7, 1944, in eastern France. At 88, the retired community college instructor has had five hip replacements and a triple bypass. Still, on Sunday, he drove from Bend to Madras to dedicate a new statue to Thomas Tucker, the Oregonian abducted and killed by insurgents in Iraq in 2006.
On Tuesday, he drove to Tualatin.
“The families of those who gave their lives don’t need a memorial. They will never forget,” Maxwell says.
“But the rest of us must be reminded.”
Both sisters of the Marines spoke. Brittany Troyer said that having an Albany baseball clubhouse named for her brother “means so much.”
Carolyn Lembke said she had gone by the Tualatin building to take pictures where his name will be installed in bronze above the door. “I love the building so much.
— Julie Sullivan; firstname.lastname@example.org