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Veteran Participation Crisis

On The Crisis Confronting Veterans’ Organizations In Tuolumne County—by Frank M. Smart

An existential crisis currently confronts Tuolumne County veterans’ organizations and could result in catastrophic consequences for future veterans’ activities. The crisis is simple, lack of membership and lack of participation.

There are essentially four active veterans’ organizations in Tuolumne County. They are Chapter 391, Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. (VVA); William Lloyd Davis/Sgt. Theodore ‘Bobby’ Rapp Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 3154 of Sonora; Keith Dale Wann VFW Post 4748 of Tuolumne Township and Smyth-Bolter American Legion Post 58 of Sonora. The Sonora post of the Disabled American Veterans disbanded several years ago.

Let’s examine the future of each.

Chapter 391, VVA, is a ‘last-man-standing’ organization with no ‘follow on’ veterans’ generations behind it to carry on its legacy. The average age of Vietnam veterans is 75. This group could last another 10 years but as the group is currently trending, I would not bet on it. More likely 5 years is reasonable. And while they have robust membership numbers, over 600, only a little more than 200 live in the immediate area. They do some recruitment.

The Sonora post of the VFW currently has less than 100 members and does little or no active recruitment. They have, in the past several years, experienced problems with having quorums at some of their meetings jeopardizing their charter with the national organization.

The Tuolumne Township VFW is very active and has the best chance of sustaining viability. Their small membership is mostly comprised of younger veterans, Desert Storm, Iraq, and Afghanistan veterans for the most part with a smattering of us older, Vietnam/Korean War veterans. They do a Ruck March each year, Donkey Basketball, and organize and manage the Tuolumne Lumber Jubilee. The key is the age of the membership. More on that later.

The Sonora American Legion boasts membership numbers around 130-140 but, like all these groups, participation is a huge issue. They do little or no active recruitment. The only activity of this group is to put on a monthly fundraising breakfast at the Sonora Veterans Memorial Hall.

Each of these groups has Color Guards which is essential given the overall age of the veteran population in Tuolumne County. However, participation in the units is spotty and often they can barely muster enough participants. It is, as I have mentioned to them repeatedly, time to consolidate our Color Guards into one unified and managed County Color Guard. This idea could, if initiated, have far-reaching consequences. One, it might help recruit new members to the three groups, secondly it would ensure that we can field sufficient Color Guards when the need arises, which it does more frequently.

The failure of these three groups would mean, in essence, that there could be little or no, certainly less than now, veterans’ activities in Tuolumne County. To my knowledge, there have been veterans’ activities in this county at least since the end of the Civil War. My nearly 40 years of involvement with these groups have imbued me with a lot of pride and knowledge of what an active group of veterans can accomplish in a county such as Tuolumne County. Their contributions to the overall vitality of life in our great community are impossible to quantify. Seeing them fail now would be a great blow to the pride of many veterans, particularly myself. This, we cannot allow to happen.

The solution, membership, participation, involvement, commitment, pride in service, and continued service that began when we entered the military.

Several years ago, before COVID, I proposed a possible solution entitled ‘The Modern-Era Veterans Initiative’ which could bring the younger veterans into our traditional veterans’ groups. It has received a lukewarm response from the veterans and the groups they belong to. I also proposed another event that might also accomplish the same result. No response to that one yet. I would make these proposals available to anyone interested. Call me at 209-559-1908 or email me fsmart@rocketmail.com.

The bottom line is someone, especially someone younger and with more ambition and energy than this 84-year-old veteran has, must take the bull by the horns and gather their younger veteran friends and either join the three traditional groups or even start a new one.

To the younger veterans I say, it is your time to influence veterans’ affairs in Tuolumne County. It is also your duty and your responsibility. Far be it for me to tell you what your duties or responsibilities are but my nearly 40 years of doing just that entitles me to speak out and see if my words, thoughts, and ideas might strike a spark that ignites these generations of veterans into action. After that fateful day on 9/11, you did just that. And you did it well. To the younger generations of veterans, thank you for your courageous service to our great nation. You have rightfully taken your place alongside other veterans’ generations who came before you.

Now is the time to show that pride in service which abides in all veterans, and rejuvenate these veterans organizations to continue your service.

Good luck and God Bless America.

Frank M. Smart, Vietnam Veteran

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