Young Veterans Hunt for Community as Older Generations Dwindle

Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9644 members attend the Fort Logan National Cemetery Veterans Day remembrance service Nov. 11, 2014 in Englewood, Colo. Many younger veterans are drawn to traditional advocacy organizations such as VFW, whose membership includes more than 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. (US Air Force photo/Trevor Zakrzewski)
Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9644 members attend the Fort Logan National Cemetery Veterans Day remembrance service Nov. 11, 2014 in Englewood, Colo. Many younger veterans are drawn to traditional advocacy organizations such as VFW, whose membership includes more than 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. (US Air Force photo/Trevor Zakrzewski)

Steve Wahle, a Marine Corps veteran, works with veterans every day thanks to his job as a social worker at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Columbia, South Carolina. But he still chooses to keep his veteran status mostly to himself.

"Being a veteran is certainly a huge part of why I am and what I do, but I am intentional about not presenting myself as a veteran," Wahle told Military.com. "I think a lot of people when they are like, 'Oh. You're a veteran.' They must mean that you went to Iraq or Afghanistan and you must be broken in some way. It must have had some negative impact on you, there is probably something wrong with you that I should be concerned about too -- all these negative connotations."

Currently, there are about 20 million veterans in the United States. Since Sept. 11, 2001, more than three million current and former service members have deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq and on other missions around the globe, according to a report by the Center for a New American Security released in October.

"In the next two decades, however, the veteran population is projected to contract by 30 percent, as the large conscription-fueled cohorts of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War age and pass," the report states.

As this occurs, those who served in the first Gulf War and other conflicts of the Global War on Terrorism will become more prominent in the country's veteran community. Military.com spoke with several veterans of recent wars who are each, in their own way, changing that community to reflect their own interests and needs. Some embrace their identity as veterans; others wrestle with it.

Many younger veterans are drawn to traditional advocacy organizations such as Veterans of Foreign Wars, which has more than 300,000 vets from Iraq and Afghanistan that help make up its 1.6 million members, said Patrick Murray, who has worked for the past two years as deputy director of the VFW's National Legislative Service.

Murray, 35, served in the Marines from 2003 to 2007, when he was medically retired as a result of losing his leg in Fallujah, Iraq in September 2006.

"My Humvee hit an IED. Myself and the guy next to me both ended up with above-the-knee amputations ... my right leg and the guy next to me he lost his left leg," he said. "The bomb blew right where the radio would be in your car, like right under the engine block, so it hit both of us equally."

After recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Murray went on to earn a bachelor's degree in liberal studies from Georgetown University.

He joined the VFW about six years ago.

"It was kind of a chance encounter. I ran into a friend who was a post officer at the VFW and asked me why I had never gone down to check it out," Murray said. "I didn't have a good answer ... so I went Sunday for their bi-monthly brunch and stuck around, watched football, talked to a few guys that day and said, 'Yeah, I kind of like hanging out with some of these folks.' "

Some of members at VFW had been there for decades, but that didn't intimidate Murray.

"You are the new guy," he said. "We all went through that when we were in the military when we joined and eventually you get some seniority after you are there for a while. Sometimes, that might be a little off-putting, but sometimes that is kind of comforting."

John Towles, a former Army medic who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, knew he was going to join the VFW before he went into the service in 2004.

"My father was a life member after 27 years in the Army," he said, describing how joining was just an accepted part of the family tradition. "Military service in my family goes back 200 years and some change."

Towles, 37, joined the VFW in 2006 after his tour in Iraq. He went on to deploy to Afghanistan in in 2009 with 575th Area Support Medical Company. He suffered a head injury in 2010 when his vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb, causing it to flip.

"To me, the situation was so insignificant despite the fact that I lost consciousness," he said. "It was not until I randomly forgot how to tie my shoes a few days later that I went to get seen by neuro back at [Kandahar Airfield] and it was determined that I had sustained a head injury during the incident."

Towles was eventually medically discharged in 2012 after suffering from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"The way that the brain injury affected me the most was it screwed with ... the part of your brain that helps you move short-term memories to long term and your active recall and how you can access that information," he said. "So a lot of what I wound up doing at the [Warrior Transition Brigade] was relearning how to learn."

Towles ended up working veterans affairs and foreign affairs issues for Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, an Iraq War veteran, on and off between 2013 and 2017.

Towles is now the director of national security and foreign affairs for the VFW, an opportunity he described as "serendipitous."

"I grew up in the VFW ... seeing all the good VFW does from the inside not just seeing it as a drinking club for veterans," he said. "A lot of folks get out and they say, 'I'm just going to do my thing myself and it's easy and blah, blah, blah,' but 15-20 years later they come back and say, 'I did my initial plan myself and I am having more issues than I know what to do with now. What can you all do?' "

Zachary Bell, who deployed to Afghanistan from October 2008 to December 2009 with 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, before leaving the Marine Corps in 2011, said he, on the other hand, has never felt welcome in traditional veterans organizations.

"People say to me, you don't look like a veteran, and I say, 'Oh thank you.' ... It's uncalled for, like everyone doesn't have to know you were in the military and everyone doesn't have to thank you for your service," said Bell, 31, a contributor to The New York Times' At War blog.

For many veterans, "it's the way they identify with things the most, and I don't want that to be the most important part of my life, because it's just not," he said.

Bell went on to earn a master's degree in business administration in 2016 from Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee.

"I just want to be a really good husband and a really good dad and then try to figure out life moving forward, he said. He married his wife Christy in 2007 and is raising Alyssa, 10, and Audrie, 8.

Bell said he has also found happiness working as an ambassador to raise money for The Boot Campaign Inc., a 501c3 non-profit corporation, that helps veterans and their families deal with TBI and PTSD.

"I love it. I love every second of it," he said. "It's just a bunch of people trying to do the best they can to help other people who have served."

Wahle agrees with Bell that being a veteran is not the most important part of his life.

"I want to present myself as who I am currently, not just the four years of shooting guns and traveling the world and drinking a bunch of whiskey," he said.

"I do know quite a few vets who work in the VA and it might be 50-50 -- the ones who put it out there in some way whether it's hanging something up in their office ... they bring it up in conversation. The other half, not like they are trying to hide anything, but I think they are more like me. They want to present themselves as who they are," Wahle said. "If I am at school, I am at school as a student. If I am in the community, I am there as a community member. If I am at work, I am here as a professional providing a service."

He didn't always feel this way.

"I grew up playing with GI Joes. I was going to retire from the Marine Corps, that was it," Wahle said, remembering how excited he was when he arrived at the Military Entrance Processing Station, or MEPS. "I asked for a 20-year contract when I got to MEPS."

He was home in Saint Louis on leave from Marine Corps boot camp when terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.

"I ran down to the recruiter's office and thought there would be a helo in the parking lot, and they would be handing out guns and we would go somewhere and do something," said Wahle, who later deployed to Afghanistan in 2004.

But then his views changed after he did a deployment to Okinawa and other Asian countries.

"I went to all these places where people didn't speak English, and realized I was the dummy because I didn't know another language and didn't appreciate these other cultures," Wahle said. "Then going to Afghanistan and turning 21 over there, and before that, not being able to find it on a map, I was like, 'Oh, there is this place called college where you learn things so that you feel a little bit more prepared these situations.' "

He left the Marines in 2005 and eventually earned a master's degree in social work from Saint Louis University in 2015.

What's different for Wahle is that he now appreciates people as individuals, he said.

"I have met some phenomenal people who were in the military," he said. "But then at the same time, I have met really great people who never joined the military, who are doing really great things in the world, so it's very hard for me to be like ... you have to be a vet to be at this certain status as a citizen."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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