Afghanistan war veteran Sam Canders said it’s not enough anymore for the American Legion just to reach out to prospective members through the mail.
Canders, 37, a recent member of the Hermon post, has been working with state Legion leadership on outreach and is trying to use social media such as Facebook or Twitter to connect with the next generation of Legion members.
“They’d been using letters, and that works for the World War II veterans; but even the Vietnam era is now connected to the Internet,” he said. “We’re trying to give a new spin to the organization.”
As the American Legion celebrated its 95th anniversary Saturday, commanders of the wartime veterans’ group said the group’s priority will be recruiting younger members like Canders who can take over leadership positions now held by aging members.
Last year, Maine membership in the American Legion dropped by 1,000 members, and about 700 of those loses came from deaths. Total membership is now about 20,500.
The Bourque-Lanigan American Legion Post in Waterville, the largest in the state, has been losing about 40 members a year and is down to 761.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” said Patrick Eisenhart, chairman of public relations for the Maine American Legion. “That’s what drives me. I want to see us turn this membership thing around.”
Since its inception in 1919, the organization has advocated for veterans, lobbied for federal and state legislation, offered scholarships and performed community service for the area. Most famously, the American Legion drafted the G.I. Bill in 1944, which made way for a variety of benefits for veterans, including low-cost mortgages and college loans.
Today, Legion volunteers walk veterans through the red tape that’s often in the way of getting their benefits.
In order to keep up that level of service, however, it’s going to take new, younger members. Reaching out to them is going to take a change in reputation from being a group of guys sitting around a bar, members say. It will take a strong sense of community service among residents — something that has plagued volunteer groups ranging from the Kiwanis to the Lions Club.
And it probably also will take Facebook.
Canders, a former major and helicopter pilot in the National Guard, said he joined the American Legion in Hermon two months ago at the invitation of friends.
“So far most of the people that I’ve dealt with are not from my era,” he said. “I get just as much from them as they do seeing the new blood come on. There’s the same camaraderie and common bond.”
Canders is now on a committee trying to connect with other veterans around his age.
In Maine, about 8,000 of the state’s 127,000 veterans served in World War II.
“Those older generations are coming to pass,” Canders said. “We’d like to reach out to the next generation.”
In the few months he has been a member, Canders said, he has done community outreach visits with area schools, helped with both Boys State and the speech contest run by the Legion.
“I haven’t even scratched the surface of what they do,” he said.
In recognition of the American Legion’s anniversary, Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday dedicated Saturday as American Legion Day in Maine. In a ceremony held at the Hall of Flags, LePage presented the proclamation to Maine American Legion Commander John Hargreaves.
The governor’s proclamation cited the accomplishments of the American Legion since its incorporation by an act of Congress in 1919 as a veterans organization devoted to mutual helpfulness.
There are more than 2.3 million members of the American Legion at 14,000 posts, making it the nation’s largest wartime veterans service organization.
Locally, the Legion sponsors community activities such as Legion baseball and every year sponsors students to attend Boys State, a Legion leadership program. It also hosts the local rounds of the National High School Oratorical Program, a constitutional speech contest with a national prize of an $18,000 scholarship.
The American Legion also provides free professional assistance — for any veteran — in filing and pursuing benefits claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“People pay good money for that kind of help, and we give that service for free,” he said. “In the military we’re like a band of brothers. We don’t leave people behind in combat and we don’t leave people behind in civilian life.”
MORE THAN A BAR
The commander of the Waterville post, Ernest Paradis, said the Waterville post’s goal probably will be the same in the coming century as it was in the last.
“Our goals are still the same: to help our own that are in need and to help our boys and girls that are coming back from overseas,” he said. “We want to let them know that we are there for them.”
He said the Legion reaches out to veterans in need, regardless of whether they are members. However, if the group is to keep its services up, the post will need more people to join.
One of the challenges, he said, is to fight the stereotype that the Legion is essentially a bar where veterans drink and share war stories.
“That was the stigma that was put on after World War II,” Paradis said. “When you try to explain what you are all about, people say, â€˜I can’t join the Legion because I don’t drink.’ It’s hard to get the new people to join, because they don’t know what we are all about.”
The Legion enrolls and pays for memberships of residents while they are overseas and tries to reach out to those members when they return. Paradis said it can be hard to find the veterans when they get back, and when the Legion does find them, they aren’t always interested in active membership or help from the Legion.
“Percentagewise it’s not very good, but its a job we continue to strive for on a daily basis,” he said.
Eisenhart said the challenges the Legion is facing are similar to the challenges of service groups all over Maine that are struggling as civic participation decreases. He said the Legion also faces the perennial challenge of younger veterans having other family responsibilities, while older veterans might be retired or no longer have young children.
“The younger vets are like me when I was younger,” he said. “I’m coaching baseball. I’m going to football and basketball. The young vets have their work cut out for them with families and trying to support themselves.”
“Our target is more Vietnam and Korea-era veterans. They’ve now raised their children. They’ve got time on their hands. Those are the guys we would like to recruit more of.”
Kaitlin Schroeder — firstname.lastname@example.org