American Legion Posts still thriving, but in need of new members
By CHRIS MORRIS | The Evening News and The Tribune | Published: March 15, 2019
NEW ALBANY, Ind. (Tribune News Service) — It's an anniversary worthy of a celebration.
The American Legion turns 100 today and while society and trends have changed since 1919, the Legion's core mission of serving veterans, active military and communities has never wavered. And, it never will.
“We are here to support vets,” said Dave Thomas, commander of the Bonnie Sloan American Legion Post 28 in New Albany. “That is what we do.”
They do it very well.
Floyd County Superior Court III Judge Maria Granger's stepson Sgt. Steven Mennemeyer was killed in Iraq in 2006. From that moment to today, the Legion has stood by and supported her family, as they do all Gold Star families.
"They were there every step," Granger said.
Like many clubs and organizations, getting new and younger members to join and be active is becoming more difficult. The Legion has more than 2 million members at 13,000 posts worldwide and have active posts in Floyd and Clark counties. But as older veterans die, many posts have seen membership dwindle.
"Maintaining membership is a bit of a struggle. It's harder to get younger guys to join," said Ron Arrington, commander of Sellersburg Post 204. "I know I didn't [join] when I got out. After you do your time in service you get home, you get married, have kids and have other things to deal with. The last thing you think about is getting involved in the American Legion."
Both Thomas and Steve Koerber, commander of William Zeb Longest Floyds Knobs Post 42, said it's getting more difficult to get younger veterans involved in the Legion. There are certain requirements to join any of the veterans groups but, unlike the VFW, the Legion accepts veterans from peacetime and wartime periods. Still, getting veterans to join has been an ongoing problem.
“There have been a lot of changes. Mainly we have lost a lot of World War II and Korean veterans who used to serve in leadership roles,” Thomas said. “It's hard to get young people in here.”
Koerber said several of his active members go to Florida for the winter.
"It's tough to get the young guys in, I guess they figure they have better things to do," he said. "It's a generational thing I guess. We just can't get the millennials. The older guys from Korea and Vietnam are slowly fading away."
While the Bonnie Sloan Post mails out 1,250 newsletters, only a fraction of that number are involved in activities, Thomas said.
“It's dropped way down,” he said. “We are trying hard to get members and encourage people to join.”
While maintaining membership is always a concern, the Legion will always do whatever is needed to help veterans in need, give back to their communities and spread patriotism.
Each year, the Legion sponsors students to attend Boys and Girls State.
"They promote citizenship by sponsoring Boys and Girls State, giving students a sense of patriotism that will go on for generations," said Granger, who is a member of the Legion Riders. "They [students] bring home basic life lessons ... love of country and to get involved early [in communities] and stand up for what is right."
Arrington said Post 204 is involved in giving to Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, as well as school groups.
"The list of what the American Legion supports just goes on and on," he said. "I would say 90 percent of our focus is veterans. But we support a lot of community projects. It's not always just about veterans."
Koerber said his post is always doing something to raise money to help those in need.
“We help veterans and we do a lot of Christmas baskets for the needy,” Koerber, a 23-year retired Army veteran, said.
FOR LOVE OF COUNTRY
The Legion is also supported by the women's Auxiliary and Sons of the American Legion groups, as well as the Legion Riders. While they all meet and host different events, they support the same mission.
"We do what we can to support veterans," said Bill Lawless with the Bonnie Sloan Legion Riders. "We purchased a popcorn machine and a case of popcorn for Liberty Place [for homeless veterans in New Albany]. We do things like that. I would like to see young veterans get more involved."
Many of the posts have become more open to the public in recent years, hosting numerous events which raise money for vets. The Bonnie Sloan Post has bingo, karaoke and Saturday night dances while lunch is served at the Floyds Knobs Post daily.
Granger said while times have changed, the Legion stands for something that will never grow old or go out of date — patriotism and love of country. She said she sees it every time the Legion Riders participate in a parade or event.
"When we ride through a community, you see people come out and salute us and put their hands over their hearts," she said. "It's a connection with the community. It's still very relevant."
Wisdom from a World War II Vet
There are now only two World War II veterans who are active in the Bonnie Sloan Post. One of those is 93-year-old Norm Miller of New Albany. He said he still enjoys going to the post, talking to younger veterans and sharing stories of his time in the service and his life experiences.
"I have a lot of true stories to tell," he said. "They are easy to tell when they are true. I went overseas when I was 19 years old. I have a lot of history to tell people and show them what they can do in life if they want to."
Miller grew up in Floyds Knobs and was drafted as a teenager. When he headed off to basic training and overseas, he didn't know what was ahead of him, or if he would ever return.
He does remember one story. He said as he boarded a boat in the Boston Harbor, ready to leave, he became sea sick. But once the boat left the dock and was out to sea, he was fine while many of the others became sick.
"I was the only one not sick," he said with a laugh.
Miller has wisdom to share and stories to tell. His was the Greatest Generation.
"I didn't know what I was going to do, but nothing bothered me much," he said. "I knew it could be bad. I had been out in the world a little ... my parents worked at factories, I walked to school. We didn't have it easy but no worse than anyone else in those days."