New veterans going online, and others are following

Brenda Smull public affairs officer for Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1, clowns with a mural painted on a wall at the club in Denver. The VFW’s oldest chapter, Post 1, in Denver, is reorganizing itself around the needs of the new veterans. Its new building currently is being remodeled and won’t have a full-time bar. Enlarge photo

Ed Andrieski/Associated Press

Brenda Smull public affairs officer for Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1, clowns with a mural painted on a wall at the club in Denver. The VFW’s oldest chapter, Post 1, in Denver, is reorganizing itself around the needs of the new veterans. Its new building currently is being remodeled and won’t have a full-time bar.

DENVER – Busy, tech-savvy and often miles from their peers, thousands of new veterans are going online to find camaraderie or get their questions answered – forcing big changes in long-established veterans groups and inspiring entrepreneurs to launch new ones.

“We’re going back to school, we have full-time jobs, we have families and kids,” said Marco Bongioanni, 33, of New York, who deployed to Iraq twice while on active duty in the Army.

That leaves little time for what he calls “brick-and-mortar” groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.

Bongioanni and many other men and women who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are gravitating to websites open only to them, where they can talk about GI Bill education benefits, job hunting, the personal toll of war and other concerns they share, any time, day or night.

“The fact that it’s a virtual world, 24/7, allows us to manage it better,” said Bongioanni, now a major in the Army Reserve and attending Army Command and General Staff College in Georgia.

They also can track their health benefits on a Department of Veterans Affairs website and read the Veterans of Foreign Wars magazine on their smartphones, upgrades prompted at least in part by the needs and habits of the 1.4 million veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“You need to go where they are, and that’s online,” said Jerry Newberry, director of communications for the VFW.

Not all the changes are happening online. The VFW’s oldest chapter, Post 1 in Denver, was created in 1899 by First Colorado Volunteers returning from the Philippines in the Spanish-American War. Today, it’s reorganizing around the needs of the new veterans.

Its new building, currently being remodeled, won’t have a full-time bar. The space will be devoted instead to offices for veterans service groups, said Izzy Abbass, the post commander and a 44-year-old Army veteran of the first Gulf War.

“We’re not the traditional VFW post,” he said. “Typically, the image is of a smoky, dark bar, (a) bunch of guys wearing funny hats sitting around bitching, and they look a lot older than I do.”

Abbass said he has deep respect for the previous generation of veterans and is grateful for what they accomplished, on the battlefield and at home. He said older veterans in Post 1 are among the strongest advocates for making changes to engage the new generation.

The VFW traces its origins to local associations of war veterans who lobbied for health care and pensions, and their meeting halls often became neighborhood gathering places.

The VFW no longer is the center of its members’ social lives, Abbas acknowledged.

“There’s, what, 2,500 bars across Denver? We could hit a different one every night and be fine,” he joked.

Post 1 emphasizes activism, working with veterans groups on college campuses, sponsoring outings for families of deployed servicemen and women and coordinating with a group that helps families reconnect after a deployment.

“What we’re saying is, look, we love you as a member, but we don’t want you to sit on the sidelines, because if we as vets don’t step up to help our fellow vets, no one else will,” Abbass said.

It was the activism that persuaded Dana Niemela to join Post 1.

“To be quite honest, I thought it was for a different generation of veteran,” said Niemela, 36, who served in the Navy from 1997 to 2005, including two years in the Mediterranean. “When I thought of VFW, I thought of World War II, I thought of Vietnam. I frankly didn’t think of women, and I think that’s a common stereotype,” she said.

“When I started meeting the other members and this post in particular, I was really inspired by how actively engaged they were in the veteran community,” she said.