WINTHROP — The newly elected head of the American Legion is in the midst of a weekend tour of Maine, visiting local American Legion halls in the area to thank members and encourage them to find ways to increase their numbers.
National Commander Daniel Dellinger spoke to members at Legion posts in Augusta, Winthrop, Oakland and Richmond on Saturday, and he plans to visit Unity Post 50 today.
When speaking at Alfred W. Maxwell Jr. Post 40 in Winthrop, Dellinger spoke about the importance of adding more veterans to the ranks as the organization enters its 96th year.
“We need to make sure that we continue to be relevant and be there for our veterans and our communities,” Dellinger said. “And we can do that through membership. We need to improve because, as everyone knows, we’re not getting any younger, are we?”
Dellinger, elected Aug. 29 at the organization’s national convention, will address the Joint House and Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on Tuesday.
He said a greater number of members would help when the organization advicates for its causes. He said he’s focused on improving on the backlog of claims veterans have filed to get benefits and trying to set up certifications for the work veterans do while serving in the military to allow them to secure similar jobs more easily back home.
“Congress should listen to us even if we have 100,000,” Dellinger said, “but if you talk about millions of people, Congress listens. And that’s why we need to have a strong membership.”
He called the American Legion the “second-best secret other than the Masonic lodge.”
“Nobody knows what we do,” Dellinger said. “We need to do a better job of using social media and communicating to let people know what we do for our veterans and in our communities.”
The American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans’ organization, has 2.4 million members, but its membership has declined over the years, dropping 11 percent from 2000 to 2012, according to The New York Times.
Attendees in Winthrop said they appreciated Dellinger’s direct tone and language, and they echoed his calls for the need to increase their numbers.
Frank Smimmo, 80, a Winthrop post member, said he was struck by the sincerity in Dellinger’s conversations with various attendees before Dellinger addressed the post.
“He’s not trying to impress anybody. He was just talking down-to-earth,” Smimmo said. “His responses were down-to-earth responses, the types of things you want to hear. It wasn’t BS.”
Greg Ruby, commander of Post 40 in Winthrop, said Dellinger came across as very relatable and not like “one of these Washington types.”
He agreed that the post, with about 320 members, needs more veterans, especially younger ones from more recent conflicts such as the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq. The challenge, he said, is that the world has changed dramatically from when many of their members returned from serving in the military.
“We don’t do the same things. It used to be, everybody was interested in pool and dancing and, you know, playing cards,” Ruby said. “The younger generation, when they come back from service, they’re not connected with us; so that’s what makes it hard.”
He said his post has taken steps to try to attract younger veterans by holding events geared toward them and by setting up a TV with a Nintendo Wii video game system to play.
Before Dellinger addressed the audience, he and members of the Winthrop post exchanged gifts such as a commemorative national commander license plate for the building’s wall of plates from visitors from other posts and a handmade gavel and Maine honey for Dellinger.
Dellinger also encouraged American Legion members to help reach his goal of raising $1 million for the National Emergency Fund — a program that gave $750,000 in the last year to veterans and American Legion posts after natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy and tornadoes in Oklahoma.
“I’m your biggest cheerleader, so keep the hard work up,” Dellinger told the audience, “and I’ll be here to cheer for you.”
Paul Koenig — 621-5663