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American Legion celebration looks toward the next 100 years

By SAM MCMANIS | The Arizona Daily Sun, Flagstaff | Published: July 6, 2019

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (Tribune News Service) — Resist the temptation to think it a metaphor for the state of the American Legion, both nationally and in Flagstaff, but the "Eternal Flame" outside the post headquarters here has been, well, snuffed out the past 18 months, nary a flicker to honor the veterans belonging to the service organization.

Not to worry, though – and not to draw any dire conclusions about the health of Post No. 3 – because a re-lighting ceremony will be one of the feature attractions on Saturday when Flagstaff's chapter celebrates its 100th anniversary of serving military veterans and the community at large through good works and fundraisers.

"A lot of people have come by and asked about the flame," said post member Sean Owens, one of the event organizers. "Just say we had some challenges getting it back to where it needed to be. But it'll be the highlight of the event."

In addition to live Americana music, fired-up barbecues, a full complement of beverages and an appearance by Virginia June, widow of original Navajo Code Talker Allen Dale June, the resumption of the Eternal Flame will signal that the American Legion is no dying ember and is trying to spark interest in a new generation of vets.

It's no secret that service organizations such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars are experiencing dwindling membership as those who served in World War II and the Korean conflict have passed on. As late as three years ago, the Flagstaff post numbered 550 members, according to Owens. Now, it's down to about 350, but post commander Jake Phelps says it is hoping to boost membership to 450 this year.

In people like Phelps is where the local Legion post's future lies. He is 29, a Marine Corps veteran, and in his second one-year term as post commander. Having a millennial running such an august service club might surprise some, but it's part of a conscious effort to recruit legionnaires from more recent wars, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Being part of the prime demographic to help sustain the legion's membership base, Phelps has reached out to other vets his age. He knows that it can be a tough sell, because the perception of the American Legion is that of a gaggle of aging gentlemen reliving war stories while bellying up to the bar.

"It used to be that the older generation was pushing away new ideas," Phelps said. "That's what drove a lot of people away, and that's where that stereotype came from. Now, it's completely different. The older generation here wants to sit back and motivate and counsel (younger vets) and let them lead."

And what is Phelps' pitch to his cohort?

"I tell them, it's not (just) a bar," he said. "It's an organization. Yes, we do have a cantina. But with the events we hold, I tell them you can meet different people that can help you. There's a ton of different benefits with the American Legion. It's kind of like a Triple-A for them, a lot of benefits."

Plus, it's a good source of "networking" for veterans seeking work or friendships, or both.

"I work for a contractor, and it brings in jobs for me," Phelps said. "People looking for workers ask me, and I've hired 15 or 20 guys from here. Whenever I need help around my house, I come here and say, 'Hey, who wants a beer? I'll give you one at my house if you help me out.' It's not just an organization; it's a family."

Flagstaff's legion, as with the other approximately 15,000 posts nationwide, uses funds raised from renting its hall for community events to sponsor not just celebrations on Veterans Day and Memorial Day but to help veterans in need.

"Summer months, it gets crazy," Phelps said. "Sometimes we're dealing with five to 10 veterans a week. Sometimes they've got money; sometimes they don't. Sometimes, they only need a tank of gas to get to the next place or a hotel for the night. We know who to call."

The old members of Flagstaff's post – "lifers," they are called – have embraced the infusion of new blood. They acknowledge that the graying of the American Legion is a threat to its long-term survival.

"I like it that they're trying to recruit," said 72-year-old Ron Kosola, aka "Calico Red," enjoying a lunchtime libation at the post. "We need 'em."

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(c)2019 The Arizona Daily Sun (Flagstaff, Ariz.)
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