WEST SENECA, N.Y. — As one of the few female officers in New York's Veterans of Foreign Wars organization, Marlene Roll heard the questions all the time: Why don't more women join the VFW? How can we change that?
As she set out to start the nation's first female VFW post, it turned out the answers had to do not only with gender, but generation.
"For years, it was really a loss for me as to what the issues were, why women weren't coming in," said Roll, a former sergeant in the Army Reserves who served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm before joining the VFW in 1991.
She found that women returning from war to juggle jobs, kids and continuing training aren't looking for a place to view their military service in the rear-view mirror, like the servicemen from past generations who make up the bulk of membership in the nation's oldest and largest combat veterans' organization.
And those "men's clubs" weren't necessarily the place for female discussions about current issues like breast cancer concerns from war-zone burn pits.
"I really hated the idea of putting the glass ceiling back in place by giving (women) their own post," said Roll, Erie County's Veterans Service Agency director. "But on the other hand, if they didn't have a place to go, they were never going to become members."
The Dorothy Kubik/Katherine Galloway Post 12097 in suburban Buffalo was created with the idea of anticipating and addressing female veterans' needs for things like health care, employment and education, though men have been included from the start.
Kubik in 1987 became the first female commander of a New York state veterans post. She'd been an Army private during WWII, decoding Japanese messages as part of the Signal Intelligence Service. Galloway was WWII nurse.
Before the post's monthly meeting on a recent Sunday afternoon, two little girls busied themselves with Hello Kitty coloring books and Barbie dolls at a folding table where a young boy did homework. Children are welcome at the meetings; child care is one of the challenges the members face.
"The guys that belong to the older posts, some of them have been out (of the military) for 40 years, 50 years, so their focus is on something totally different," said Renee DeRouche, the post's commander. Like some of the other members here, she's still on active duty, as a property book officer with the National Guard.
The post has about 50 members from every conflict going back to Korea. About two-thirds are women, with some of their husbands are among the men filling out the ranks. Without a building of its own, the fledgling post meets at West Seneca Post 8113, a single story hall with a bar, banquet rooms and an outdoor pavilion.
With a strong focus on family, its leaders say it's only a matter of time before more posts like theirs crop up, especially now that women account for 15 percent of the military – more than ever before – and as the military moves toward permitting women to serve fully in front-line combat unit.
The other big veterans group, the American Legion, has not seen any women-oriented posts open but women do command some posts and the number of female veterans joining the organization is growing, spokesman Craig Roberts said.
Nationally, the VFW launched a "She Serves" membership campaign in 2008, encouraging women to join the organization as a way to network and keep up with female veterans and their issues. It's also assigned a chairwoman to every state to be in contact with women veterans, Roll said. The chairwomen will meet at a Washington legislative conference this month to compare notes.
"We're trying to put forth a robust effort to recruit women," said Jerry Newberry, a spokesman for the VFW. "We recognize their service to our country. We recognize their talent, their skills, their knowledge."
The national organization does not keep track of the gender breakdown among its 1.6 million members, he said, but is mindful of the hesitation of some women to join. The VFW, open to veterans who have served in an overseas war zone, traces its roots to 1899, when it was created to advocate on behalf of veterans and foster camaraderie.
"Perception and tradition are tough things to change," Newberry said. "Certainly, there is probably a perception that it's a men's club of sorts and we're doing our best to break a tradition that previously existed for many, many years that women VFW members are few and far between."
As a longtime VFW member since the 1970s, Bob Clark has seen the shift away from membership in general, which only reinforces the perceptions.
"It's a culture shift," said Clark, who has 40 years of military service, including in Vietnam and Iraq. Among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, "there's not a lot of joiners and participators now. They've also got a whole bunch of other things in their lives so they don't show up. So what you end up with is male-oriented VFWs that tend to have older members whose focus isn't current events."
He joined post 12097 with his wife, Sue, who returned from Iraq in May 2010, and in support of his daughter, who is serving in Afghanistan with the Army.
"This group, because it's women of a younger age, all who are combat veterans, have a much more current focus," Clark said. "They are socially conscious and they are interested in supporting each other and making sure that people have their medical needs and their psychological needs taken care of."
JoAnn Kelsch was drawn to the post as a way to reconnect with women and veterans after serving in the Air Force from 1985 to 2008.
"I really like the mission," she said while attending her first meeting. "I saw here there was awareness in wanting to make it right for women."
The biggest hurdle so far in the post's young existence is fundraising, a staple of the organization's mission that enables it to help veterans and other community organizations. Since launching last summer, the post has yet to hold a fundraiser because the time to organize and pull one off is in short supply among the membership. Roll and DeRouche hope volunteers come forward as auxiliary members to help out.
Meanwhile, the post's leaders continue to field questions about their group, but have heard of no imminent plans for other women-focused chapters.
"They're interested but they're waiting to see what happens," DeRouche said. "I think in the next year or two you're going to see more of it."
"There's no reason to go backwards," she said.