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Rupa Shenoy, Minnesota Public Radio, Published August 17 2012

New blood in veterans’ groups often female

ROSEMOUNT, Minn. – On Wednesdays, the Rosemount VFW regulars head to the post for bingo night. The weekly game is open to the public and helps fund the VFW’s operations.

Minnesota National Guard Maj. Kristin Auge volunteers at the post selling bingo cards to the players. And though she lives just a few miles away, she had never been inside this VFW until last spring when she joined.

It took a little more work that she thought it would.

“I walked up to one of the guys and I said I wanted to sign up to be in the organization and I said ‘I’m here to join.’ And he says, ‘Well, you’ve had to have been in the service.’ And I said, ‘Well, I am, and I still am.’ And he says, ‘Well, you’ll have had to have deployed.’ ‘Yes, I just got back from Iraq.’ And he was like ‘Oh, OK, I guess I’ll take your paperwork,’ ” she recalled.

The older members welcomed Auge, so she cajoled some initially reluctant female friends into joining.

Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, once vital parts of small communities in Minnesota, have seen ranks fall drastically over the past few decades as older veterans pass away.

But Minnesota VFW officials say they’re seeing an influx of women like Auge joining the organization after coming back from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The trend is stronger in Minnesota than in neighboring states, although the reason isn’t clear. Auge said she wanted a place where she could spend time with the women who were part of her support system during deployments. And she wanted to maintain contact with a military culture that had made up the structure of her life for more than two decades.

Auge and her close friend Bosnia veteran Diane Sandberg successfully campaigned for leadership positions at the post. Sandberg said they quickly saw the institution was facing extinction. She jokes that, as women, they were better equipped to solve the problem.

“We definitely have pluses that the men don’t have. We hear everything. It’s not selective hearing. We can balance and juggle where they’re just, you know, more single-minded,” she said. “I know I’m being funny but we want to make sure this is there for the future, and we want to do our part, now that we can, to make sure that it stays sacred.”

Sandberg said veterans – male and female – need a place where they can spend time with others who understand their experiences.

“Wars are not going to stop, military service is not going to stop, and so future soldiers, men and women, need a place to go, and they need a place to decompress at times,” Sandberg said.

But sometimes the generations – and the genders – clash over things like the decor. Iraq veteran Linda Ausen doesn’t like it.

“The club is kinda dark and dreary, and we want to brighten up the place,” Ausen said. “Some of these guys are still thinking ‘Oh no, it’s fine. We like the dark wood paneling.’ ”

Sometimes the clashes are about behavior. Korean War veteran Kenneth Talbert said some older vets don’t realize you can’t just give someone a good-natured pat on the bottom.

“That’s part of the problem, I think, is the sexual harassment area,” Talbert said.

Rosemount post Commander Marvin Jansma, a Vietnam War vet, said male members are watching themselves.

“You can only go so far,” Jansma said. “You just have to behave yourself.

Jansma said he’s grateful for new members and officers, regardless of their gender. As his generation ages, he said it’s getting harder to maintain the post.

“When it comes to the young ladies that we’ve got here, we’re thankful, and there’s challenges, but we have opportunities,” he said.

Jansma said those opportunities mean the post is more likely to survive and thrive when his generation is gone.

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