December 15, 2009, 8:00AM
NUTLEY -- Nearing 9 o’clock on a recent Thursday night, three veterans drank $1.50 draft beers at a neighborhood bar in Nutley.
Amid real war stories, Kenny Hall called to the bartender.
Jennifer Brown/The Star-LedgerAt the Randolph VFW post 7333, the veterans have a welcome home ceremony for an Army soldier, Brian Reynolds, who is on leave from a tour in Afghanistan. "Hey Jack," he asked, "do you have my VFW card yet?"
Hall — who served nine months in southern Iraq with the New Jersey National Guard — may represent the future of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the 110-year-old advocacy organization whose membership has been dwindling steadily as World War II veterans die off.
Veterans of the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan like Hall, 21, slowly are beginning to fill the ranks of many VFW posts throughout the state.
"It’s not like you are going to run into another veteran at another bar," explained David Gisonno, 28, president of the Montclair State University student veterans organization and an Iraq veteran.
Scott Montanio, 28, who served with the Marines, joined Post 7333 in Randolph four months after returning home in 2004 — the first veteran of the Afghanistan war to join the post. Welcomed by Vietnam veterans old enough to be his father, Montanio is now two years away from leading the organization and has been joined by at least three or four other recent veterans.
He said he is there because it is an incredible networking opportunity. It is also a way to talk with former soldiers who, despite their age, know exactly what he went through and how he feels now.
"Though there is a very large age difference, time seems to stand still when it comes to going off to war," he said.
The generational difference didn’t matter one recent Thursday night when Brian Reynolds, 25, who was on a two-week leave from Afghanistan, was welcomed home at a party at the Randolph VFW.
The party, held in the wood-paneled and slightly musty basement, was attended by Montanio and a dozen other veterans.
Reynolds said he was happy to come home to a place where he could share his battlefield experiences openly. Post members gave him a dark blue VFW hat, which Reynolds said he planned to take back to Afghanistan to persuade other soldiers to join their local chapters.
Veterans of all ages share a common bond: "The military is the military," he said.
The VFW has its roots in a group of soldiers who advocated for medical care and pensions upon their return from fighting in the Spanish-American War of 1899. Now, the organization has officers who help veterans access government entitlements and guide them to medical treatment with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Memorial Day celebrations and ceremonies remain core activities. But the VFW, which at its peak in 1993 had more than 2 million members, also played an active role in the passage of an improved education bill for veterans and lobbied heavily for a recently passed bill to provide rights and government support to the family members and caregivers of wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
Nationally, the VFW says it is trying to recruit new members. It has brought into its ranks nearly 15 percent of the 1.8 million soldiers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001, said Jerry Newberry, the group’s communications director. He said the VFW signed up 11.4 percent of the 11 million soldiers who served in World War II.
Despite the optimism, there is concern as membership continues to drop, not only because World War II veterans are dying, but also because Iraq and Afghanistan veterans enroll and then don’t always become active.
"We are looking to the Iraq and Afghanistan vets and they’re coming aboard for a short while and then they drop out," said Robert Pinto, the adjutant for the New Jersey VFW.
He said some posts are resistant to change.
"With the World War II veterans, they are set in their ways and they don’t want to give up what they have," Pinto said. "The younger guys say, ‘You don’t want to change? I’ll just go somewhere else.’âÂ€Â…"
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, founded in 2004, offers virtual connections, with a social-networking site accessible to veterans only and a dynamic website encouraging veteran political activism.
Officials say the VFW posts that have seen increases in enrollment are generally led by Vietnam War veterans.
Still, Gisonno, who recently purchased a home in Hoboken with his wife, is confident the VFW will thrive once veterans settle back into their lives at home, get some mental distance from the intensity of their war experiences and decide to seek out others who understand.
He reflected as Jack Kane, 61, who served in Korea from 1968 to 1969 and serves as a VFW recruiter, tended a bar where an Iraqi flag taken as a souvenir hung on a wall.
"Give the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans another 10 years," Gisonno said, "and this place will be packed."