Leaders of local veterans’ groups say their members are aging and younger soldiers coming out of the military aren’t joining their ranks to take their place or help shoulder the burden of helping people, including other veterans, in their communities.

If local outposts of organizations including the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, AMVETS and Marine Corps League don’t bring in new blood, several local leaders said, as their current members die off, posts could close and the services they offer to the community and to veterans could no longer be offered.

“We need to have some new blood, new ideas. We need somebody to step in and start taking over the activities us old guys are doing,” said Ralph Sargent, 81, of Augusta, a retired Marine who served in the siege of Khe Sanh and is senior vice commandant of Marine Corps League Kennebec Valley Detachment 599 and junior vice commandant of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9 in Gardiner. “Get out of your recliner, get up, and support the community that supported you while you were on active duty, and step up to the plate.”

Group members said some younger veterans who saw action in places like Iraq or Afghanistan have told them they don’t join veterans’ groups after their military service because they don’t think they would relate well to the older former soldiers there, and that they don’t have much in common.

Eric Hunt, 66, of Fairfield, who served in the Navy and is a past commander of Winslow Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8835 and an associate member of Marine Corps League Kennebec Valley Detachment 599, said a post full of older veterans is perhaps about the most likely place a young person dealing with the horrors of war can find someone who understands what they’ve been through, because many there have been through it themselves.

Ralph Sargent, left, U.S. Marine Corps retired and senior vice commandant of Marine Corps League Kennebec Valley Detachment 599 and junior vice commandant of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9 in Gardiner, discusses the decline in membership in Veterans of Foreign War organizations locally. He’s joined by Roger Paradis, middle, a Navy veteran from the Gardiner American Legion Post 4, and Bill Schultz, U.S. Navy retired and Commander of Marine Corps League Kennebec Valley Detachment 599. Photo by Elise Klysa

“The younger people need to know there are people in these organizations that have experienced what they’ve experienced, and they’re not alone,” Hunt said. “There are others in these organizations who are in the same boat they are, and they’re more than willing to do what they can to help these younger members.”

Hunt noted group members also go to VA Maine Healthcare Systems-Togus, where they help returning veterans with any problems they might have.

Services veterans’ groups provide in the community include scholarships; fundraising drives for other causes; flag, color and honor guards for events including funeral ceremonies at no charge for deceased veterans; motorcycle escorts; making sure flags are placed on veterans’ graves and flag poles; putting on parades and remembrance ceremonies; community meals; educational programs on patriotism; and sponsorship of youth groups including scouting programs and sports teams.

Beyond camaraderie, local posts and groups provide services to veterans such as advocacy to preserve their benefits in Washington, D.C., and, Sargent said, access to people who are willing to help fellow veterans solve just about any problem they may have.

If new veterans don’t join and fill the shoes of members who die or are no longer able to be active, the services the groups provide may no longer be provided, and some posts may close or be forced to consolidate with other posts.

Hunt said his VFW post in the late 1970s had close to 600 members, but now it is down to about 400 members. But, he said, it’s the same 20 to 23 members who regularly go to post meetings and it’s that same core group that seem to be involved in nearly all the other post activities.

Members of other groups said the same thing: A small core group of their members are the ones involved in nearly every group activity and meeting, while other members are rarely seen at group events.

Bill Schultz, 76, retired Navy and commandant of Marine Corps League Kennebec Valley Detachment 599, said if the core members of these veterans’ groups stop coming and doing all the things they do, their local posts would likely close.

James Laflin, 70, of Readfield, retired Army, an AMVETS National Executive Committee representative, commander of AMVETS Post 2001 in Augusta and a past commander of the department of Maine AMVETS, said that organization has lost a couple of posts in recent years and has seen its state membership of about 1,500 decrease by 200 to 300 members.

James Laflin, an AMVETS National Executive Committee representative, commander of AMVETS Post 2001 in Augusta and a past commander of the department of Maine AMVETS, discusses reasons why fewer younger veterans are not engaged in local veteran organizations. He says without younger veterans involved, there will be fewer voices fighting for veteran issues such as health care. Photo by Elise Klysa

Statewide, the number of legion members in Maine, according to a membership report on the state legion’s website, decreased by nearly 1,951 members from 2016 to 2017, and in that same time period, only 315 new members joined in the state.

Augusta American Legion Post 2 lost 11 members and gained seven from 2016 to 2017, according to the state membership report. Gardiner’s legion Post 4 lost 19 members with six new members joining in the last year. And Waterville’s legion Post 5 lost 60 members with 14 new members joining in their place.

Nationally, the American Legion had about 2.4 million members in 2010. Currently it has about 2.2 million members in some 13,000 posts throughout the country and overseas, according to John Raughter, a national legion spokesman.

Roger Paradis, 70, of Pittston, retired from the Navy and adjutant, historian and Americanism coordinator for American Legion Smith-Wiley Post 4 in Gardiner, said members of the Kennebec Valley Honor Guard, at their own cost, attend nearly 100 burials of veterans a year, and the group is increasingly finding it hard to keep up with the demand.

Schultz said one thing might help: As soldiers are leaving the military, they could be presented information about the various veterans’ groups and what they provide.

“A lot of people don’t know anything about us,” he said.

Group members said if fewer veterans join such organizations, it lessens the strength of their voice as a group when they need to lobby to protect veterans benefits in Washington, D.C.

Roger McLane, 69, of Litchfield, retired from the Navy, commander of VFW Post 9 in Gardiner and a member of American Legion Post 181 in Litchfield, said it is important that people, including legislators and children, learn that freedom isn’t free and that it came from sacrifices made by those who served their country.

“We’re all here because we care about our brothers and sisters,” McLane said.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj