26 October 2012

Next Missions: How Military Alumni Groups Can Thrive

As noted in previous Red Bull Rising blog posts, some veterans posts and military alumni groups seem to be in danger of dying off.

Younger veterans don't come home to drink at the local watering holes, the thinking goes, and they certainly don't join bowling leagues like they once did. They've got families, friends, churches, school activities. They've got their own distractions, and their own problems. Who has time to get together for coffee, or even an annual reunion?

Veterans organizations, military service groups, and alumni associations are all left fighting the same fight: How do they refit and reset to be relevant? How do they attract the veterans of today ... and tomorrow?

The main effort of the 34th Infantry Division Association, for example, has long been a two-day annual reunion. The group celebrated its 65th such event earlier this year. Surviving World War II veterans shared some of their stories, and a few recent veterans of the 2-34th Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.) deployment to Afghanistan offered unclassified retrospectives on some of their actions downrange.

The national non-profit association's bylaws begin with this mission statement: "To foster and perpetuate the camaraderie of brothers-in-arms of those who have served with the 34th Infantry Division since its organization."

('Brothers-in-arms' ... and sisters, too, one hopes. Stodgy, gender-specific language is itself a potential obstacle to attracting young people. No female combat veteran, after all, wants to be shuttled off to crochet with the spouses.)

The bylaws also call for the creation of exhibits in museums, opportunities for preservation of 34th Inf. Div. historical documents, and for funding skilled and trained librarians, historians, and lecturers.

In other words, the association has before it a target-rich environment, multiple potential courses of action, and a mission-statement broad enough to flex and adapt to changes in the military, in society, and in its membership.

Here are five ideas on how the 34th Inf. Div. Association—and others like it—could extend its outreach and engagement with the communities it serves:

  • Start a traveling memorial or display. In nine states, Nebraska-based Bellevue University has underwritten traveling "Remembering Our Fallen" displays. Each panel depicts a U.S. service member who has died from wounds suffered in a war zone since Sept. 11, 2001. On a smaller scale, the 34th Inf. Div. Association could develop similar displays interpreting its 95-year organizational history in an accessible, portable way. Such displays could not only help remember those who have fallen, but also help people understand the role of the "Red Bull" in Italy and Iraq, Africa and Afghanistan.
  • Teach people to preserve their own histories, and those of others. Enlist family members, Eagle Scouts, and even veterans themselves to record and preserve their experiences in print, film, or audio recording. Conduct workshops on the techniques and formats that should be used for submission to archives. Help identify museums or other organizations that are eager to accept such histories.
  • Publish yearbooks, documentaries, anthologies, and/or histories. Glenville State College's West Virginia Veterans' Legacy Project, for example, collected interviews, photos, and other information from veterans in preparing a television documentary and companion coffee-table book.
  • Outfit and encourage historical re-enactors. A California-based group regularly re-enacts World War II-era units, including the Japanese-American 100th Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team (442nd R.C.T.), as well as the 34th Inf. Div.'s 133rd Infantry Regiment. The 100th Battalion and 442nd RCT fought as part of the 34th Inf. Div. for a period in World War II Italy. What about offering grants to "Red Bull" re-enactors, encouraging them to re-create for audiences the uniforms and equipment used from World War I to present day?
  • Help put on a show. The Austin, Texas-based "Telling Project" is a national theatrical effort that stages performances by local veterans, who share with their communities their personal stories of military service and sacrifice. All eras and branches of military service are welcome. The November 2012 production of "Telling: Des Moines," underwritten by Des Moines Area Community College, features a number of "Red Bull" veterans and family members. There are other theater-based efforts out there as well. In New York, for example, a college course resulted in a performance titled "War Stories: Reading and Writing About the Impact of War." It was performed in April 2012, and again this month.

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