Tom Schmidt, a 27-year-old Marine veteran of Afghanistan, touched a US flag with his left hand and lifted his right one as he promised to abide by all the regulations of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
It’s an oath that millions of veterans have taken since the VFW took root more than a century ago, first by soldiers who served in the Spanish-American War. But this ceremony was not held inside a decades-old VFW function hall above a smoky downstairs bar, but rather on the campus of Northeastern University.
Schmidt had just joined Robert R. Pirelli Post 12158, a new chapter with 52 members that is the first to be established at a private university in the United States.
At a time when veterans groups are losing members, the post is reaching out aggressively to Northeastern students and others who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The goal is to help reenergize the VFW and connect new veterans with the resources — academic, financial, and medical — to transition smoothly to civilian life.
“We want to be the new face of the VFW,” said Pirelli commander Max Spahn, a Marine veteran and recent Northeastern graduate who inducted Schmidt in February.
New faces are needed. The latest group of American warriors has not been flocking to veterans organizations such as the VFW and American Legion. Some cite the yawning age gap with Vietnam veterans. Others say they are too busy with school and growing families.
While they stay away, veterans from World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam are dying off. The VFW has dwindled to 1.3 million members, from 2.3 million in the 1990s. The American Legion has shrunk to 2.2 million from 3.3 million in 1946, just after World War II left the country flush with veterans.
“Their first priority is not to join a veterans group,” John Raughter, an American Legion spokesman, said of the latest batch of veterans.
The American Legion did not provide a number for its Iraq and Afghanistan members, but Raughter estimated that 300,000 to 400,000 of them have served since the Gulf War. In the VFW, Duncan estimated that 14 percent of its members served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“These younger vets don’t want to sit around and share war stories,” said Johnathan Duncan, the national VFW’s deputy director of administration operations.
The generational shift is striking inside the George Dilboy VFW Post in Somerville.
“They’d rather go in to Boston to a bar,” Robert Hardy Jr., the 69-year-old post commander, said of younger veterans. “A lot of them think we’re just a gin mill where you sit down and shoot the [bull]. Maybe they feel comfortable talking to their own people.”
As Hardy spoke, six men at or near retirement age sat at the downstairs bar in Davis Square. Cigarette smoke and soft afternoon chatter gave a clubby feel to the dark room, where Keno flashed on a small screen and an unused pool table claimed a big chunk of floor space.
Most of them served during Vietnam, and none was a veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan. It was noontime on a weekday, and many younger veterans have jobs, and families, and college classes that take up much of their time.
“We can take them to the front door, but they don’t want to knock,” Hardy said.
The post has withered dramatically even since 2010, when Dilboy had 564 members. Now, the chapter is down to 305, Hardy said. Across Somerville, the number of veterans posts has dropped to five from 12, he added.
Hardy, an Army medic in Vietnam, said the trend is reminiscent of his own experience, when Vietnam veterans generally were not welcomed by World War II service members who dominated the posts.
“They thought we were losers, that we had lost the war,” Hardy said.
Now, the doors to the Dilboy Post -- named for a World War I soldier from Somerville who received the Medal of Honor -- are wide open, Hardy said. Although five of the post’s 17 officers are veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan, their comrades have not joined the ranks in large numbers.
Despite the decline, veterans organizations continue to engage the community. The American Legion, for example, reaches out through its baseball program, civic training events, and oratory contests, among other efforts.
Still, the age difference at many posts is daunting — at least in perception, said John McGuinness, an Afghanistan veteran of the 101st Airborne Division who is senior vice commander of the VFW post at Northeastern.
Not only are student veterans welcome at the college post, but so are alumni and other veterans beyond the sprawling urban campus, said McGuinness, president of Northeastern’s Student Veterans Organization.
“I see this as a path to keeping it going forward,” McGuinness said.
Spahn, the post commander, sees another benefit at a university with 800 veterans in its student body.
“This is a place for us to — I don’t want to say ‘complain’ but — get together and talk,” Spahn said of the chapter, named for a Northeastern graduate who was killed in Iraq in 2007.
Spahn said the post, which meets monthly at the university, provides more than camaraderie — although that outlet is important. Veterans also can request advice and assistance in pursuing education, health, and disability benefits.
That is a model the VFW wants to get behind.
“We need to find better ways to get younger members involved, and better autonomy to do and accomplish the things they want to do” in the community, Duncan said.
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.