The VFW is an American organization composed of men and women who are current or former members of any of the five branches of the United States military: army, navy, air force, Marine Corps, or coast guard. They must have received a campaign medal for overseas service or meet at least one of the following eligibility criteria:
- received a Combat Infantryman Badge
- received a Combat Medical Badge
- received a Combat Action Ribbon
- received a Korea Defense Service Medal
- received an Air Force Expeditionary Service Ribbon with gold border
- received a Navy SSBN (nuclear ballistic missile submarine) Deterrent Patrol Insignia
- served in Korea for 30 consecutive or 60 nonconsecutive days from June 30, 1949 to the present.
- received hostile fire or imminent danger pay
Also, membership requirements include being on active duty, in a reserve component, in the National Guard, or receiving an honorable discharge from the U.S. military. Members must also be U.S. citizens. Current members have served in various overseas military campaigns, including World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, Gulf War I (Desert Storm), Gulf War II (Iraqi Freedom), and the Afghanistan War (Enduring Freedom). As of 2008, the VFW had about 2.6 million members in 9,000 posts worldwide. The membership includes various auxiliary groups, most notably the Ladies Auxiliary.
The VFW was founded in 1899 as the American Veterans of Foreign Service following the Spanish American War of 1898. Many veterans returning from the war's fronts (mainly Cuba and the Philippines) were deeply dissatisfied with the treatment they received by the U.S. government after the war ended. Most wounded veterans received scant medical treatment or were denied medical care and rehabilitation services. Many even had to find and pay for their own transportation to return from the battle front to their homes.
The VFW was the result of the merger of two organizations: the American Veterans of Foreign Service founded in 1899 in Columbus, Ohio, and the Colorado Society of the Army of the Philippines founded the same year in Denver, Colorado. Both were established to fight for the rights of war veterans, but they achieved few successes and suffered many defeats. The two groups merged in 1913 and in 1914 adopted the name Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States. In 1914, the organization achieved its first major victory when Congress and the president approved a pension bill that provided financial payments to widows of Spanish American War veterans. Also in 1914, the VFW established the Ladies Auxiliary. In the 1920s, the group successfully lobbied for creation of the Veterans Bureau of the U.S. government and formation of veterans affairs committees in the House of Representatives and Senate. In the 1930s, the two greatest achievements of the VFW were lobbying Congress to approve legislation that gave cash bonuses totaling nearly $2 billion to 3.5 million veterans, and nullification of the Economy Act, which had drastically cut veterans benefits during the height of the Great Depression . Through the ensuing decades, the VFW continued to fight for the rights of war veterans and expanded its efforts into community outreach programs.
Annual membership dues are set by individual posts and are usually $20 to $35. A lifetime membership is available and the cost is on a sliding scale based on age. The lowest fee is $170 for veterans born in 1926 or earlier and the highest fee as of 2008 was $425 for veterans born in 1977 and later. Member benefits include:
- subscription to VFW Magazine
- help in obtaining government benefits for veterans
- discounts on prescriptions, computers, hotels, and car rentals
- real estate and mortgage services
- group-rate insurance programs that cover personal accidents, vehicles, long-term care, cancer treatment, senior term life, pets, condominiums, and travel
The VFW encourages local posts to become active in their communities. In addition, the VFW has four major nationwide service programs:
- National Veterans Service—Provides full-time advocacy for individual veterans and their families. It employs a staff of veteran service officers who are experts at dealing with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
- National Military Services—Provides help to currently deployed military personnel and their families. Services include family group support activities, pre-paid phone cards to overseas service members, and emergency financial aid.
- National Legislative Service—Lobbys Congress in support of legislation that benefits veterans.
- Youth Development Service—A program that offers scholarships and savings bonds to American students. It also supports the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC) in high schools and scouting programs.
Buddy Poppy —A trademarked artificial red poppy that is distributed by the VFW around Memorial Day.
Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC) —A federal program in American high schools that teaches patriotism and prepares students for military careers.
Political Action Committee (PAC) —A type of political committee that raises and spends money on political candidates and causes.
Term life —A life insurance policy that provides coverage for a specific time period (term), usually five, 10, 20, or 30 years.
To many Americans, the VFW is best known for its Buddy Poppy program that it started in 1922. The red artificial poppies are made by disabled and needy veterans and distributed during the Memorial Day weekend each year. Donations from the program raises millions of dollars annually and are used for veterans services, including the VFW National Home for orphans and widows of veterans.
The VFW considers itself a patriotic organization that is an advocacy group for war veterans. It is generally viewed as a politically conservative group, especially regarding military and foreign affairs. It frequently endorses political candidates and causes. In 1979, it established the VFW Political Action Committee.
Besides lobbying Congress in support of veterans' benefits and national defense issues, it contributes money to political campaigns.
Wolin, Jeffrey. Inconvenient Stories: Vietnam War Veterans. Brooklyn, NY: Umbrage Editions, 2007.
Blankenship, Janie. “VA Adapts to the Newest Wave of Vets.” VFW Magazine (September 2006): N/A.
Blankenship, Janie. “VFW Makes a Difference in the Lives of Today's Troops.” VFW Magazine (January 2007): N/A.
Blankenship, Janie. “VFW Members Offer Assistance to Hurricane Victims.” VFW Magazine (January 2006): N/A.
“Iraq and Afghanistan Vets: A Dominant Theme at VFW's Convention.” VFW Magazine (October 2005): N/A.
Pope, Tom. “VFW Rebranding: Deeper List Segments Putting Forward a New Face.” The Non-Profit Times (February 15, 2007): 1(2).
Urban, Kelly. “VFW Project Helps Keep Troops in Touch.” Tribune-Democrat (Johnstown, PA) (December 31, 2007): 1.
Ken R. Wells