Addressing members at Alfred W. Maxwell Jr. Post 40 in Winthrop earlier this month, Daniel Dellinger, the newly elected national commander of the American Legion, spoke on the importance of attracting new members.
“Congress should listen to us even if we have 100,000,” he said, “but if you talk about millions of people, Congress listens. And that’s why we need to have a strong membership.”
Dellinger, who also stopped in Augusta, Oakland, Richmond and Unity, takes over the helm at the American Legion at a critical juncture. It remains the nation’s largest veterans organization, with 2.4 million members, but membership has dropped 11 percent since 2000 and more than 22 percent since the early 1990s.
The American Legion was created following World War I and really took off after World War II, when millions of returning veterans made Legion halls popular spots for socializing, with dinners, music and dancing.
The organization became a formidable lobbying force — members wrote and helped pass the original GI Bill — and a presence in the community. The Legion has long sponsored Boys State and Girls State, summer programs that teach high school students about government, and its eponymous baseball organization, among many other civic contributions.
But the World War II veterans who grew the Legion are dying off — there are approximately 1.2 million remaining from the 16 million who served, with more than 600 lost every day. Posts everywhere are struggling to stay open and active. One, in St. Louis, has gone from a post-World War II high of 1,500 members to around 60. Another, in Holyoke, Mass., went from more than 600 members 20 years ago to less than 200 today. The list could go on and on.
The hope for the organization lies in the 2.6 million veterans who served during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Legion posts have thus far had little success in attracting the younger veterans, who are coming home from war at a time much different than the 1940s. With both spouses working and kids busy day and night, dinner and dancing at the Legion hall is not the draw it once was.
But the veterans are going to need an advocate. The men and women of today’s armed forces are returning from the Middle East with unprecedented levels of physical and mental trauma, and they will need a powerful organization on their side for years to come.
According to a recent survey by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, one-third have contemplated suicide. About 25 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, while 7 percent have suffered a traumatic brain injury, according to a report by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.
The Veterans Administration is having trouble keeping up. More than 500,000 health claims at the VA have been allowed to lag for more than 125 days. Highly complex diagnoses like PTSD and traumatic brain injury are difficlut to process, and thus more likely to be among the claims in the backlog.
The American Legion can continue to be on the forefront of the fight on veterans issues, but only if it is strong and willing to change. The organization should improve its online presence so that busy veterans can play a role outside of the hall. It should have its younger members reach out to fellow recent veterans, and it should modernize the offerings of the local posts.
The new veterans, for their part, should keep an open mind about the old organization and help shape it as their own, just as their counterparts did two and three generations ago.
If the Legion is successful in reshaping itself, the organization will grow again. And Congress will have to listen.