They survived war in the trenches of Europe, the mountains of Korea and the jungles of Vietnam. Now former American servicemen face a new battle - the survival of veterans groups.
"Our problem is our rate of attrition is so high. We buried 13 members last month from my post; we've buried 72 so far this year," said Willard Livingston, a member of Veterans of Foreign War Post 1308 in Alton, Ill.As the number of older members who fought in World Wars I and II and Korea dwindle, younger veterans haven't filled the vacancies.
"The younger guys just have too many things to do," said Livingston, 77. "But I don't know of any incentives to put in front of the young persons to get them to join."
The tradition of joining the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans organization, has sagged over the last 50 years with a brief surge in the early 1990s during the Persian Gulf War.
The American Legion had about 2.9 million members at the end of 1997 compared to the 3.3 million in 1946, said Steve Thomas, a spokesman for the Legion's national headquarters in Indianapolis.
"I think that maybe as an organization that we have kind of stepped back or not challenged our young people to be a part of our organization, and we're making a very, very strong effort to change that this year," said Ivan Torkelson, Iowa commander of the American Legion.
At the 15,000 American Legion posts and the 10,600 VFW posts around the world, veterans cater to their communities' needs by sponsoring scholarships, creating youth programs, volunteering or providing color guards at events.
The VFW, which has 2.1 million members, watched its membership grow consecutively for 37 years until 1994, said Steve Van Buskirk, director of the VFW Foundation in Kansas City, Mo.
The difficulty in recruiting new members "is not a veterans thing, it's a generational thing," he said.
"It's pretty universal whether it be any organization you belong to," said Paul Heckman, adjutant of the American Legion post in Marshalltown. "It's not just the American Legions or the VFWs. People just aren't willing to take the effort to belong to something."
Dick Reed, commander of the VFW post in Knoxville, said he asks his six children and their friends to help set up flags in the cemetery on Memorial Day.
"If it wouldn't be for that, you'd have four people show up," said Reed, a 48-year-old Vietnam veteran. "Everybody thinks it's pretty, but nobody wants to help."
The numbers have dwindled so much that often times at funerals of veterans, gun salutes are from recordings rather than from fellow servicemen.
He acknowledged that the numbers have been hurt by the lack of participation by other Vietnam vets.
"A lot of them have got a chip on their shoulder. It's stupid," he said. "A lot of them feel like they were mistreated when they came back."