Memorial Day is a time members of the American Legion, the largest veterans service organization in the U.S., are most visible. It’s the culmination of a month of small ceremonies honoring the sacrifice of servicemen and servicewomen.
The parades and ceremonies put together in Pennsylvania and across the country by the American Legion and other groups highlight the significant role these veterans organizations play in saluting fallen soldiers. But, increasingly, they’re a visible reminder of how hard it is to recruit new members among the veterans of conflicts since Vietnam.
“There’s some misconceptions, some people believe that a lot of these American Legion and VFW posts are places where you sit around and drink and socialize and talk about war stories,” said Darryrl Johnson, commander of the American Legion-Latin American Post in North Philadelphia.
A week before Memorial Day, he and two members of his post visited St. Anne’s Church cemetery to replace tattered American flags on the graves of Civil War and Mexican-American War soldiers.
All three men are Vietnam-era veterans; two walk more slowly than they used to — and they’re quick to joke about their “old age.”
Johnson and his two companions are an accurate representation of the Latin American post’s veterans. Among its 60 or so members, only five fought in wars after Vietnam.
“All you see right now is the ones that are taking over are the Vietnam veterans,” said Jose Rivera, a Latin American post member. Many of the post-Vietnam veterans pay their dues to a post, but they don’t show up for meetings, he said.
Founded in service
Congress chartered the American Legion in 1919 as a way to promote service and preserve the memories of wars fought by the U.S.
Posts raise money for college scholarships, organize blood drives, and run a baseball league. Of course, the vets also remember fallen comrades, toast their memories and swap war stories.
Pennsylvania has one of the highest numbers of American Legion members in the nation, according to Kit Watson, department adjutant for the Pennsylvania American Legion, who has helped revitalize posts in Philadelphia.
Still, the state is not immune to a national drop in membership.
Pennsylvania had more than 900 American Legion posts in 1975. Today, it’s just above 720. Philadelphia lost more than half of its 90 posts in that time.
“It’s not like people quit the organization, they kind of moved on,” said Watson. “They moved to other areas, or the posts no longer exist in that area.”
Some of the decline is natural, he said, because fewer people serve in the military.
No magic bullet for recruitment
Back at the cemetery, Johnson said veterans also have more ways to give back through organizations such as Mission Continues, which adopted a high school in the city. Social media also make it easier to find veterans who went through similar experiences.
At annual American Legion conferences, Johnson has attended sessions that emphasize ways to attract new members. One piece of advice: Don’t allow smoking at your bricks-and-mortar post.
“A lot of these younger veterans went through an environment where the smoking really wasn’t permitted,” he said. Another draw, Johnson said, is providing “free Wi-Fi in your post, because a lot of the younger generations are so adept with technology.”
Davidson also recommends consolidation.
Some posts no longer have a physical space, so they meet in recreation centers or other facilities a member may volunteer for a meeting. They’re nicknamed “paper posts.”
“A lot of these posts that existed strong at one time are now paper posts, and they still meet occasionally. But that is not going to draw in the newer veterans that want to come in,” Davidson said.
Some paper posts, however, see the lack of a building as an asset, allowing members to focus on their volunteer service projects.
At the American Legion-Jesse Soby Post in Langhorne, the key to attracting new members is visibility. The group organizes a massive annual Memorial Day parade, and membership cards are at the ready at almost any fundraiser.
“We want (veterans) to know that we’re thinking about them,” said Don Minnick, vice commander of the post. “We’re not trying to get them to come in and paint the building and put the floor down. We just want them to know that we’re thinking about them, because they did the same thing we did.”
Membership at the Jesse Soby post has held steady in recent years. With the death of some members and the recruitment of others, the post is at about 250 members.
Losing history and a support system
While the Jesse Soby vets aren’t too concerned at the moment, they are aware of what’s happened across the country to posts that failed to attract new members.
Losing the post because of attrition could mean losing the room of helmets, rifles and newspaper clippings they’ve collected over the century they’ve been around.
If veterans continue to lose these spaces, future ones ”won’t have an organization to join for mutual support, camaraderie,” said Walter Davidson, junior vice commander of the Jesse Soby Post.
Still, Minnick anticipates the younger vets will come around after they’re older and finished raising families. Minnick, a Vietnam-era vet who joined the American Legion five years ago, said that’s why he delayed joining until much later in life.
“I’m the young guy that had too much going on,” he said.
Some posts do report success in recruiting post-Vietnam veterans. It may not be enough to catch your eye during Memorial Day ceremonies, but it’s a start.
At the Jesse Soby Post, double amputee Kevin McCloskey — a new member who served in Afghanistan — will be the guest speaker at the Memorial Day event.