American Legion looks to recruit younger veterans

By MIKE GLENN | Houston Chronicle (MCT) | Published: August 24, 2013

John Augusto hung up his Navy uniform about four years ago. Since then, the Houston resident and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy said, something has been missing from his life.

"I missed the military for the camaraderie," said the 33-year-old Augusto, who now works in the oil and gas industry.

He would find that connection with other like-minded veterans at his local American Legion post.

Recruiting veterans like Augusto is a key concern for the 94-year-old organization, in Houston beginning this weekend for its national convention. Legion officials acknowledge the need to ensure their organization is relevant.

"The reality is the younger veterans right now are busy doing things that are needed for their families," said Mark Seavey, who fought in Afghanistan as an infantry soldier and now works as the Legion's director of new media.

The organization has about 14,000 posts with about 2.4 million members throughout the world. About 10 percent are veterans from the Persian Gulf War to current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Matthew Herndon, deputy director of the membership division at American Legion headquarters in Indianapolis.

Herndon said the Legion is reaching out to younger veterans in tangible ways.

Marketable skills

They assist veterans with marketable skills, such as combat medic training, to transition their credentials into the civilian world. They also help Legion members navigate through the maze of government bureaucracy, Herndon said.

Even younger veterans whose new civilian obligations allow little free time should join because, as members of the American Legion, they will have a voice in the nation's capital, Seavey said.

"We are a community and we need to stick together," he said. "We all have to look out for each other and this is one way you can do it."

The convention, where Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled as the guest speaker, continues through Thursday at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Topics range from education to homeless veterans.

Augusto will be among about 10,000 people expected to attend.

He spent seven years in the Navy and was an officer on the USS Trenton, an amphibious assault ship, before leaving the service to join ExxonMobil.

Some of his fellow Annapolis graduates have been at the Army-Navy game-watching parties, hosted by the north Houston American Legion post.

'There's a connection'

"A lot of my classmates who have been in battle have come down here," Augusto said. "These old guys want to hear your sea stories and your war stories. There's a connection."

He also wanted to be part of an organization that works in the community.

"It isn't just about going somewhere to drink and talk about military stuff," Augusto said.

John Boerstler of Houston was in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1999 to 2007 and fought in Iraq. The 31-year-old now works for the Wounded Warrior Project, another organization that assists veterans.

Boerstler noted the American Legion's past work as staunch advocates for veterans' issues in Washington.

Boerstler, who is not a member, said some posts seemed primarily concerned with providing a venue for socializing.

"They haven't really figured out what to do with us and how to market to us," Boerstler said.

"If they really want to survive and be relevant to this generation, they should absolutely transition to more of a veterans resource center," he said.

The Legion lobbied for the Post 9/11 GI Bill, which has been used by about 1 million former military members since its passage about four years ago. They also backed legislation to support veterans with small businesses and help those who served their country but are now homeless, officials said.

"We're not just sitting around playing pinochle," Herndon said. "There's actually a purpose behind the membership."