Rick Stevens, combing Carl Young’s hair, and Ray Fawcett, giving Charlie Despres a cut, have both served the country in war zones. Yet, like most veterans of their generation, they haven’t joined a service organization like the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)
Service clubs working to attract younger vets
By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
BELMONT — When Dylan McCarthy, a lance corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps, received notice that his request for leave had been approved, he knew he would spend the week away from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, back home with his family.
“I’m all about family, I love my family. Every second I’m away from them, I miss them,” he said. Being away from his sister, mother, stepfather and other family in Belmont was “definitely” the hardest thing about his service, he said. McCarthy, a ‘16 graduate of Belmont High School, left for boot camp in August of 2016 and hadn’t seen his family since he left on Jan. 3 to begin training for his job as an avionics electronics technician.
If he was going to be home just in time for Veterans Day, he figured he might as well make a dramatic entrance. On Thursday morning, he suprised his cousin, Adrianna Fisher, at an observance assembly at Belmont Elementary School, and did the same that afternoon for his sister, Paige McCarthy, at Belmont Middle School.
McCarthy had thought about military service for years, and was persuaded to join the Marine Corps by a friend, Riley Woods.
“I always wanted to do something for my country, give back a little bit,” he said. So far, he’s glad he made the decision to sign up.
“It definitely took a lot of getting used to. It’s getting better. There are hardships you have to get used to, such as being away from family for a long period of time,” said McCarthy.
Joining the club
Hillary Seeger, adjutant for the Laconia Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1670, hopes that people like McCarthy will join a service organization, such as the VFW or American Legion. However, veterans of current conflicts aren’t showing up at their local Legion or VFW post, she said. These clubs are mostly populated by Vietnam War veterans, she said, though younger veterans would be welcomed into the club.
“As the wars get nearer, you get into Iraq and Afghanistan, you see a big drop-off in enrollment. A lot of it has to do with the perceptions of the clubs.” Seeger described the perception of the clubs as being a smoky bar filled with older people. In fact, most Legion and VFW posts have banned smoking, she said, and some have taken steps to appeal to a younger crowd.
The Laconia VFW, for example, recently underwent a makeover that included new paint and flooring, additional windows to let in more sunlight, a new pool table, and new ceiling tiles. The post is now hosting live music on Friday nights, and has expanded its drink offerings beyond the usual draft beers.
“(Bar manager) Laura (Pelchat) makes one of the best margaritas in town,” said Seeger. “And where else are you going to get a margarita for three bucks?”
The club’s membership recently voted against hosting the electronic gambling game keno at the club, said Seeger. “It doesn’t seem like it’s something that a 25-year-old is looking to do.”
It’s normal for private clubs to go through these types of transitions, Seeger said. After all, the older members are likely retired and have more time to spend with the organization, while younger, potential members, have their time consumed by careers and families. But, she said, VFW and Legion posts offer an opportunity that veterans may find hard to find elsewhere.
“We have a lot of people who have seen some really bad combat, and they need a place to talk,” she said. And, people returning to civilian life after their military service can find the transition jarring.
“It’s really different (in the military), you have built-in friends, you have built-in things to do, everything. You are just part of this amazing community that takes care of every social need that you have. When you get out and you’ve lost that, and you come back home and your friends have moved away, then you’re all by yourself. You get a job and that’s great, but those people at your job have their own lives.
“So you’re home, and you have this work, and it’s hard... If you come to one of these service organizations, you come in and you’re welcome and you have something in common. It’s a really really good thing to have that. There’s trauma associated a lot of times with service. It can be the trauma of war, it can be the trauma of being away from home for a long time. it can be a lot of things. The more young people that come in, then they’re going to find each other in there. You can’t go down to the local watering hole and be assured that you’ll find that same cameraderie.”
That sounds good to Rick Stevens and Ray Fawcett, who cut hair and trim beards at Rick’s Barber Shop in Meredith, but neither of them have applied to join a Legion or VFW post.
Fawcett served in the Army from 2008 to 2011, including a deployment to Kuwait when it was still considered a war zone. He’s proud to be a veteran, and proud to join the tradition of veterans that came before him, such as his father and many other relatives. He reflects on that tradition when Veterans Day comes around.
“It’s kind of honoring a lineage of not just what you’ve done, the people that have come before you that have shaped history,” he said. So far, though, his interest hasn’t extended to veterans’ organizations. Instead, he devotes himself to his work, and to an unusual weekend pursuit.
“The only reason I haven’t, time has always been an issue. I work a lot. On the weekends I do professional wrestling,” he said. “There’s a lot of organizations I would like to be a part of. It makes it difficult because of time.”
For Stevens, cutting hair in the neighboring chair, the thought of veterans organizations brings to mind a perception – which may well be undeserved, he allowed – of “older girls and gals, cheap drinks, sitting in a smoky bar room.” Stevens, who was twice deployed with the Marine Corps to Iraq, has many veterans among his clientele, so he already feels connected to other veterans in the area. For those who don’t have that connection, he’s glad that the VFW and Legion are available.
“I think they’re great organizations, great for the people that use them. Cameraderie, people looking for that kind of connection, I think that’s awesome,” he said. And, he said he might be open to learning more about the organizations.
“I have no reason not to go. I will be interested in checking them out,” said Stevens.
For people like Stevens, interested in learning more, Seeger suggested connecting with their local post on social media.
“Just like our Facebook page, we put all our events on there ... I just encourage everyone to come down and say hi. It’s just a really great way to make some friends, have fun and give something back to the veteran community.”
Marine Corps Lance Corporal Dylan McCarthy is all smiles as his sister, Belmont Middle School seventh-grader Paige melts in his arms after Dylan appeared unexpectedly at the start of the school’s Veterans Day observance on Thursday. (Alan MacRae/for The Laconia Daily Sun)