Highwood VFW Post 4741, like most such groups nationwide, has seen its ranks dwindle with the deaths of World War II and Korean War veterans, and stands ready to welcome those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but can't count on them joining — yet.

"Usually, the younger group of veterans doesn't join until they're 55 or 60," said Thomas Schmit, 85, a U.S. Navy veteran and post commander. "Today's younger veterans may not be ready to join a post for another 15 or 20 years.

"I've got 68 members and only one is under 50," he said. "The rest are all in their 80s, 85. And we have one guy, Arnold Toni, who's 95."

The newer vets' reluctance comes despite the help their comrades could offer with various financial, physical and psychological issues. The support is available no matter the age, Schmit said, explaining that one Highwood VFW member in his mid-60s only recently was persuaded to get the benefits he had coming.

Despite having a job paying $11 an hour, the Vietnam vet was living out of his car.

"This guy comes with us every weekend to (the Highwood) McDonald's for breakfast," said Schmit, "and even with the job he was still sleeping in his car. We talked him into using his benefits and he just started."

With hundreds of thousands of returning veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues, including depression, coping with life can be overwhelming.

"It can be very hard to talk to these guys," said Schmit. "They're so proud of being independent, of not needing any help, but sometimes they can't handle it by themselves. They have to have help, and some have to get counseling."

According to the National VFW website, the 115-year-old organization has two million members, including those in the ladies auxiliary. In addition to being service organizations in their communities, the VFW on a national level advocates for benefits, VA hospital improvements and, in 2008, celebrated passage of a GI Bill for the 21st Century, giving expanded educational benefits to those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The city of Highland Park has staff who served in the military, including management analyst Karen Berardi, who retired from active service as a captain in the Army after being stationed stateside and in Kuwait for one year. She said VFW posts can provide a sense of belonging for veterans.

"As a veteran and someone who spent time in the military, it's that feeling of community you get that sticks with you forever," said Berardi. "I know it's always a struggle for veterans to find a community similar to what they had in the military."

Schmit believes one factor in declining national enrollment is that fewer VFW posts have a building. Post 4147 lost its facility about 15 years ago and now rents space at the Highwood Recreation Center for meetings the first Wednesday of every month.

"Our post is in District 5," said Schmit, "and out of 40 to 45 posts in the district, only four or five have their own home, and I think that's what younger (veterans) are looking for.

"I would hate to see the post go down," he said. "That would be a complete failure. I'm doing everything I can to keep it alive. That's what keeps me going. We have enough money and we need to get the word out that we are here to help."

triblocaltips@tribune.com