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The VFW is focusing on recruiting women, who may be missing out on their benefits


The VFW, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, has just under a million members, less than half as many as at its peak. That is partly due to an aging demographic, but the group also has a reputation for being men only. As the VFW wraps up its annual convention in Phoenix this week, Christina Estes with member station KJZZ reports on how the group is trying to attract more women.

CHRISTINA ESTES, BYLINE: As a German linguist, Amy MacKenzie was stationed in West Berlin during the rise and fall of the Wall. At a session called How to Engage Women Veterans, she recalled visiting her local VFW post in Pennsylvania after leaving the Air Force.

AMY MACKENZIE: In the hopes of joining as a regular member and automatically being handed an auxiliary application.

ESTES: She requested a regular application, went through the verification process and became a member in 2006.

MACKENZIE: The old guard - that's what I call them - called me the blond girl for three years.

ESTES: Today, she is called the VFW Department of Pennsylvania Women Veterans Chairperson. MacKenzie oversees an annual conference for and about women veterans.

MACKENZIE: We have a whole series of events that we do covering, like, VA benefits.

ESTES: The benefits have never been bigger. The VFW pushed for last year's PACT Act, a new law that will spend $700 billion to expand VA health care and benefits. And one of the most important things the VFW does is help its members navigate the federal bureaucracy to get the benefits.

MACKENZIE: We bring in service officers who will process claims right on the spot.

ESTES: But many female veterans never get help from the VFW because it has a reputation as an old boys' club.

DENISE PERRY: I mean, you're dealing with military men, you know? They can be very sexist.

ESTES: In the Army, Denise Perry encountered sexism and racism. Still, she joined her local VFW in Maryland and achieved leadership positions all the way to the national level. Perry credits a local commander for being an early mentor and sees greater diversity at these conventions but says more women need to be tapped for leadership positions.

PERRY: A lot of the incoming commanders - they can appoint people. No - everybody's not elected. If you would just give them those appointments at the national level, that would trickle down, I think, to the lower level also.

ESTES: At this year's convention, the VFW elected its first woman as national junior vice commander, Army veteran Carol Whitmore. In 2025, she'll become the group's first female commander in chief.

CAROL WHITMAN: That's not why I'm doing this. I'm a veteran first, but I will be a different face than what they're used to seeing. And I think that will encourage other women to want to join and do things.

ESTES: The VFW says most members don't list gender on their applications, but 4% have identified as female. Based on event attendance and veteran and military demographics, the VFW thinks it's more like 8%.

BARBARA LONCAR: Don't assume anything.

ESTES: Back at the session on how to engage women veterans, Barbara Loncar, who served in the Army, says, when recruiting in public....

LONCAR: I ask the females that are out there as we're coming by - are you a veteran?

ESTES: Marine veteran Debbie McElhannon shared a lesson about promotion after a Louisiana event didn't go over so well because of three letters on a flyer - VFW.

DEBBIE MCELHANNON: We were told by some women veterans who did not come to the event, they automatically thought males - that males were going to be over this convention for women because they saw VFW really big.

ESTES: The goal is to flip that reaction, to make those three letters a welcome sign for all. It won't be easy, but as these women said, they're not quitting. They deserve to be VFW members and get the benefits they've earned.

For NPR News, I'm Christina Estes in Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF DESTINY'S CHILD SONG, "GIRL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Christina Estes