American Legion increases outreach as numbers dwindle
By AMY BICKEL
Nov. 03, 2017
HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) — For decades, World War II veterans were the backbone of the American Legion.
But that era of veterans are dying at a rate of a thousand a day, putting the organization that is approaching the century mark at a crossroads, said National Vice Commander Byron Callies.
"That is a struggle," Callies said after addressing members of Lysle Rishel Post 68 during a tour of Kansas. "Those were the ones who were the backbone until the Vietnam veterans came in and now we're the ones who are the backbone."
Callies, a retired 41-year member of the South Dakota National Guard, touched on the organization's push to reach new veterans and retain others as its membership continues to age.
"It's difficult because of the family and job obligations," Callies told The Hutchinson News , adding he had the same issues at that age. "As a Vietnam-era veteran, I was thinking about raising a family."
Hutchinson's post has an 801-member quota, a level post officers work to achieve each year, said Dave Warnken, a national executive committeeman for the legion. But as one member reported, more than 200 renewal forms haven't been returned.
Some have died. Some have moved to other states and haven't joined another post.
Those are the numbers that concern Kansas Commander Terry Marr. One of the biggest issues he sees is that communities don't know about the organization's variety of programs — instead thinking of post halls that dot several towns as a place where veterans sit at a bar.
"When I was growing up, the American Legion hall was the center of the community, said Marr, of Wichita. "Everything we did was at the legion hall. We knew exactly what programs the American Legion had, and now we've gotten away from that.
Marr said the group isn't working hard enough to sell themselves.
"We aren't letting the community know about the excellent opportunities we have for their children and their families."
Marr encouraged Hutchinson members to open the post to the community on Veteran's Day as an educational effort. He also gave the post a challenge. Members, he said, need to do more face-to-face visits with those who haven't renewed, as well as call all members and "ask them what the American Legion can do for you."
"We have a 98 percent success rate when we are talking to them one on one," Marr said. "We can't let those 200 people slip away and do nothing."
A majority of the post's membership is Vietnam veterans, said Warnken.
Warnken spent two tours of duty in Vietnam as a Navy Seabee — a construction battalion. He has a 60 percent disability from agent orange exposure and has been cancer free for 11 years.
The legion probably has more programs than other organizations, Warnken said. He picked a couple that he's interested in, which includes helping veterans through his position.
"That's why I serve," he said. "I want to assist veterans any way I can."
Callies called the American Legion a family. Anyone working in the organization has "decided to extend your contract with Uncle Sam and continue serving your fellow soldiers, your fellow sailors, your fellow service members who put their life on the line," he said. "There are those who really need help and the American Legion can do that, whether it is through financial aid or youngers playing baseball, Boys State, helping them if they need rent paid, a car fixed, their lawn mowed. Those are the types of things we can do individually to help our organization."
Callies said he doesn't have great answers to deliver.
"I don't know if anyone does," he said. "What do we do? We keep trying. We don't give up."
Then, he asked why a 21-year-old coming back from Iraq should join the American Legion.
"We don't need to ask, we show them that we care. We show them we don't just want their money. We are going to show them we are going to take care of veterans just like someone took care of us."
He told the story of how he joined the National Guard at a young 17. It was 1965, and he was a senior in high school and had to ask his mom to sign for him.
He was in a combat engineer guard unit that was part of a special reserve force training for Vietnam. Their unit, however never got called.
"I have mixed feelings about that," he said, noting he has two sons who saw action in the military. "Sometimes I get the feeling I'm not really the true veteran that you all are. I don't qualify for certain things. I'm assured, but it is difficult to believe though that I'm a veteran just like you."
But like the family Callies touted, several in the audience softly spoke in support — "yes, you are."
Information from: The Hutchinson (Kan.) News, http://www.hutchnews.com