By Michelle Love
A few weeks ago, while attending the 118th VFW National Convention, a woman approached me while my mother and I were taking pictures of the Buddy Poppy displays. I assumed it was another woman who wanted to comment on my poppy printed skirt. However, I would soon find out that she was more concerned about what I was wearing on my head instead.
“I just got out of the VFW Riders meeting and they were talking about the Cross of Malta,” the woman said, looking at the emblem on my cap.
“They were?” I asked as I glanced around to see how far ahead my mother had wandered.
“Yes,” she replied. “Apparently, they’re letting just anyone wear it.”
“Who is?” I challenged, incredulously. As a Gold Legacy Life member or the Veterans of Foreign Wars, I had paid over $1,600 in membership dues for the right to wear this emblem.
“We are!” the woman retorted, raising the tone of her voice to match my own.
“Really?” I said, still in disbelief. “But you have to be a member of the VFW to wear the Cross of Malta,” I explained.
“Well, there are some people who believe that only people who served in combat deserve to wear it,” the woman stated before she sauntered off.
I felt a sense of déjà vu as I watched her walk away. A few years earlier at our convention in Pittsburgh, I was approached by a woman who could not believe I was a member of the VFW. Now, I meet a woman who basically implied that I didn’t deserve to be one.
The Cross of Malta is the official emblem of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Adapted from the Maltese Cross, it is the symbol of fighting men who, united by a solemn pledge of comradeship, were willing to go to war to fight for freedom and to aid the sick and needy. This logo used to be emblazoned on bumper stickers declaring “Join the Elite”, luring young men to join what is now often referred to as a “good ol’ boys” club. If one were to look up the history behind the logo, then take our name in its most literal sense, one could assume that our organization is only for combat veterans. And women weren’t allowed to serve in combat.
As I hurried to catch up to my mother, I began to wonder if this was a widespread belief among our ranks. If so, I contemplated, are we are responsible for our own demise?
There are three prerequisites to be eligible for membership in the VFW. First, you have to be either a U.S. Citizen or U.S. National. Second, you had to have served honorably in the U.S. Armed Forces. Finally, you would have to had either received a recognized campaign medal, served in Korea for a set amount of days, or have received Hostile Fire or Imminent Danger Pay. I earned my eligibility to join the VFW during my 1-year tour of duty on the Korean peninsula.
Today, our membership stands at nearly 1.7 million members between the VFW and the family members that belong to its Auxiliary. While that number may sound large, it is down by almost 200,000 members since 2015. Many blame this decrease on the death of our World War II veterans. I attribute it to ineffective recruiting.
Up until 2013, women were banned from serving in combat roles until Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that this rule had been rescinded. With the goal of ensuring that the mission was met with the best qualified and most capable people, regardless of gender, lifting this ban opened around 230,000 posts, including some on the front line.
I separated from the military well before this change went into effect. However, when I did serve, I spent half of my career in a support role for an all-male tactical unit. I trained alongside those men in the event our entire squadron was deployed. Had that call ever come, I would have answered it willingly.
The VFW is our nation’s oldest major veterans’ service organization. We have a longstanding record of service and stewardship and millions of Americans have entrusted us with their generous monetary contributions that afford us the opportunity to grant millions in scholarships and emergency financial grants. We also have almost 2,000 people who donate their time to assist veterans file claims for well-earned VA benefits as well as those who take the time to testify before Congress, fighting for the rights of our servicemembers and their dependents. By not allowing all eligible veterans the opportunity to join our ranks, we are not just hurting ourselves, but also the sick and needy we swore to protect and defend.
We are the Veterans of Foreign Wars, not the Combat Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the sooner we remember that, the sooner we can rebuild our ranks.
Michelle Love is a proud veteran of the United States Air Force and active member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. She was recently elected Commander and named Veteran of the Year for District 2, which covers Seattle, Burien and Vashon Island. Michelle was stationed at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea from August 1997 until August 1998 and was awarded the Korean Defense Service Medal.
Editor’s note: Michelle is the sister of Jackie Weatherspoon, a 2015 VOA contributor and former journalist at The Oregonian who suggested her sibling step in for her last year. Michelle did so and was happy to write again this year. I’m grateful for her military service and hope to turn an online relationship to a face-to-face friendship this fall.
Tomorrow: Midori Mori, What it means to have Pride