BANGOR – With PTSD affecting one in seven military service members, leaders of Maine’s veteran organizations are saying they are more important than ever.
“I am the youngest current sitting commander in the entire country,” said Christopher Robison of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Maine.
At age 38, Robison is an outlier in the VFW, a 120-year-old military service organization that has fought for veterans’ rights since the Spanish-American War.
The average age of VFW members is around 70. Robison and leaders of other veteran service clubs are trying to recruit new blood as memberships decline with the passing of World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans who have filled the ranks for decades.
“We’re changing,” Robison said just before the start of the Bangor-Brewer Veteran’s Day parade. “It’s modifying our behavior. We have a somewhat unearned reputation of just being an old man’s club. The VFW is much more family-oriented now, a lot more family events. It’s not just some dank place where people go to smoke and tell war stories.”
He added, “We do a lot to advocate for veterans both here in Maine and nationally and that’s what the VFW has been about since its inception.”
They are not alone in the fight on Capitol Hill, with the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, and Marine Corps League battling alongside.
“For veterans, it’s not just them taking care of themselves and the benefits they have, but they’re also taking care of the benefits that when their kids are veterans, their kids will have and their kids will have,” said Commandant Don Kozerow, who leads the Greater Bangor Area Marine Corps League Detachment 1151.
Some of the next generation of veterans say they’re not quite ready to join veteran service clubs.
“I guess I haven’t gotten around to it yet,” said Davis Asherman, an Army veteran and University of Maine student from Yarmouth. “I’m really busy with school right now and rebuilding a house and I haven’t met other people in those groups and I haven’t reached out on my own.”
“I’m not a part of the American Legion but I’ve been to one of their programs before called Boys State,” said Airman 1st Class Cole Debois, of the 101st Air Refueling Wing in Bangor. “And it’s an incredible program that helps develop youth. I know that they’re doing a lot of stuff like that so I think the American Legion is great. And I know from a few neighbors that the VFW is a great organization as well.”
Dubois and others said they do plan on joining.
“Not yet, but eventually, yea, I’d love too,” Dubois said.
“Probably will, you know, once I get out and I’m not so busy with the Maine Guard,” said Senior Master Sgt. Anntina Michaud, who retires this week from the 101st Air Refueling Wing after 32 years.
“It’s one of those things, service to this branch first to the Guard and the state,” said 101st Staff Sgt. John Gladu of Orrington.
Robison had a message for all veterans.
“You may not need the VA right now, but down the line, you definitely will and VFW and our sister organizations are there to help ensure all the veterans get the healthcare and all the other benefits that they need,” Robison said. “And your membership is important.”