Guest Post: “Our Disengaged Younger Veterans”

A discussion that Vice-Commander Kim Mezger started in the American Legion LinkedIn group saw a response from one of the members there. With permission from the author, Bridget Ludwa O’Hanlon, here is the full article:

This article originally appears in the July/August 2013 Issue of Cleveland’s DD 214 Chronicle,


Our Disengaged Younger Veterans

Anyone who belongs to their local veteran’s organization is aware of the absence of the younger veteran population. I technically belong to an American Legion Post in my hometown, but between my work commute and continued military service, it’s often difficult to motivate myself to go to meetings regularly. I suppose it doesn’t help that I’m the youngest member, and there seem to be only a handful of other Post 9/11 era veterans. What gives?

Let’s consider recent American military history. Our WWII veterans returned home after a glorious victory in war, one in which our entire nation was geared up for. In less than a decade, the Korean War followed on the heels of our GI’s celebrated return. In stark contrast to their brothers old enough to fight in WWII, we were not engaged as a nation, and our Korean War veterans endured the quiet failure of the “Forgotten War.” Again, in short order, we found ourselves entrenched in foreign battle, this time in Vietnam. Not only did our nation lack the rally cry so often heard during WWII, but public criticism of the war went so far as to demonize the troops themselves. Vietnam veterans shared the crushing experience of failure with their Korean War brethren.

This next part is important: after experiencing decades of war, with intermittent periods of peace, the United States ended the draft and found itself in a period of relative peace, despite Cold War tensions, for about 15 years. The first war our all-volunteer force would face would not be until 1990 and would last only a few months – Desert Storm/Desert Shield. This war was the first time since WWII that our nation would rally support for our troops. Once again, our nation experienced a peaceful lull, one abruptly halted on September 11, 2001. Since then, our troops have engaged in the Global War on Terror, and generally enjoy our nation’s support. Equipment technology advances, however, coupled with multiple deployments, have resulted in injuries rarely seen in the past: traumatic brain injury, severe anxiety and other mental health issues.

How does this history lesson relate to our aging veterans organizations? This history has a direct influence on how our veterans relate to each other. Our WWII veterans have enjoyed a special status, stemming from their war experience and the nation’s support. Our Korean and Vietnam War veterans have either a defiant and proud celebration of their service (precisely because they were overlooked and even spat on) or they shun it entirely. Between relative peace after Vietnam, and the Gulf War’s brief duration, there lies a wide generational gap between our Post 9/11 veterans and their predecessors. Additionally, most Post 9/11 veterans are far more digitally connected to each other, between texting and social media, versus their older counterparts. The point: each generation’s post war experiences and needs are unique to their generation; this is amplified in our younger veterans because of the generation gap.

What can veterans organizations do to welcome our younger veterans? Start slow. Recognize the gaps. Recognize the lack of diversity in many organizations, and understand that will have to be taken into consideration with recruiting (race, gender, religion, service experience). Many younger veterans have parents who served, so see if those parents are members as a means to engage – I attend Legion meeting with my parents, because it creates a more comfortable space for me as a younger, female, noncombat veteran. Empower the younger veterans. Invite them to speak their voice, encourage the older members to consider a new way of doing something. As we start to engage, we’ll create familiar space for our Post 9/11 peers. These are only suggestions, and may not be the solution. The point is to first acknowledge why our younger veterans might not be as engaged as previous generations, in order to be creative in attempting to engage that population.

Bridgetby Bridget Ludwa O’Hanlon