GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — During Friday’s Veterans Day program, George Galesky and other students in the Stockton University campus center talked about the first week after midterms and a class trip to Greece.
As the speakers took their positions by the podium, Galesky quickly took a seat — only to stand again to be acknowledged as one of the school’s more than 400 active service members or military veterans.
For the youngest generation of veterans, those who served in the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, finding a place they fit in is key.
“It’s just important to be around people who understand you,” said Galesky, 34, a member of the Stockton Student Veterans Organization, as well as a service group called Ma Deuce Deuce that raises awareness of veteran suicides.
“It’s good to have a community that’s here,” said Kirsten Chervenak, 28, who is serving in the Air National Guard stationed in Egg Harbor Township while completing her junior year at Stockton.
Stockton, which has been ranked by U.S. News & World Report and The Military Times as one of the best schools for veterans, has a Military & Veteran Services department as well as a specialized counselor and student lounge for veterans.
Ryan Luurtsema, president of the Student Veterans Organization, has a full agenda of programs and services he wants to see implemented for his fellow students.
“Our generation of vets are very different,” Luurtsema said, “because of the benefits and what vets need after their service. Our generation is trying to sustain and get better with the benefits available, while the older generation was more about a different kind of veteran status.”
Along with the Student Veterans Organization, Luurtsema, a twice-deployed Army veteran, said he recently joined the Belleplain Veterans of Foreign War Post 6257, in an effort to help the organizations bridge a growing generational gap.
“They just began advertising towards my generation. I think the organizations like the VFW or American Legion may be known for being politically charged, when they should be community charged,” said Luurtsema.
Galesky joined a chapter of the America Legion in Toms River to reach out to more veterans.
“My sister gave me a hard time when I joined. She was like, ‘Why are you joining an old-man group?’” he said.
Chervenak and Tobias Chisolm, Student Veterans Organization treasurer, both described American Legion and VFW organizations as being “for older vets” or “not what they’re interested in.”
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“It’s a difficult process,” Bob Marzulli, commander of Morvay-Miley American Legion Post 524 in Ocean City, said about attracting young veterans to their group.
According to the national American Legion website, between 2017 and 2018 there were 12,806 Legion posts in operation across the country. There are nearly 2 million members of the Legion, making it the nation’s largest wartime veterans service organization, though it sees only 10 percent of the national veterans population, according to the website.
In March, the Ocean City chapter touted 425 members, along with 150 members of the auxiliary and 125 members of the Sons of the American Legion. The national organization allows membership for veterans of all ages, including Gulf War/War on Terror veterans, which includes service from August 1990 to present.
However, Marzulli said only a handful of members qualify as young veterans.
“Our younger vets work as police, fire or EMS and are very tied up and committed to their jobs,” he said. “They have wives and kids.”
Marzulli didn’t join the Legion until 20 years after his final year of service.
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Weekly activities at Post 524 include meetings, hosting the “Welcome Home” veterans radio show for WIBG-AM 1020, Sunday dances and the Tuesday night pinochle game. While an active post, and the largest in the area, Marzulli said it focuses on serving the veterans in Cape May County who served in Vietnam, Korea and World War II.
“There is a generation gap,” he said.
Activity groups in South Jersey like Honor and Remember, which participates in the Run for the Fallen, and Team Red White & Blue have gained popularity with active military and veterans over the years.
Lynnette Cavanaugh, an active-duty chief warrant officer in the Army, became chapter captain of Team Red, White & Blue at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst last year. The team started in 2015 and in three years has gained more than 732 members, who partake in activities ranging from bar trivia nights to marathons.
“The younger generation is looking for the connection, but they’re looking for the physical activities as well,” said Cavanaugh. “A lot have PTSD, along with risk-taking behavior. So we take positive risks, like marathon training or extreme runs like Spartan races.”
According to the national organization, Team Red, White & Blue has more than 151,000 members nationally, with 75 percent being active military or veterans. At the McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst chapter, 80 percent of the members are active military or veterans.
“I think that the paradigm has changed to more active groups,” said Cavanaugh. “Everyone had their niche that they are looking for. People are still looking for the camaraderie. Groups like ours might be the future, but we’re not looking to take them (American Legion and VFW) over.”