On Memorial Day, members of the American Legion Post 16 will be marching in the parade through Skowhegan in honor of those in the armed forces who have died while serving the United States.

While many take the various veterans’ organizations across the nation for granted, those in the groups know that recruitment has become the largest challenge they face.

“I have a sales pitch I give the younger veterans,” said Steven Spaulding, commander of Post 16, while sitting in the legion’s hall on Waterville Road in Skowhegan. “If you can afford the dues, $35 a year, when you get to be our age, it will still be here.”

He might make that sales pitch after the parade, when the legion hosts a gathering with food and drinks. Sometimes a veteran who isn’t a member will show up, and they’ll sign up on the spot, he said.

“It’s a touchy thing, so I think it does spark a little interest,” he said about the parade and the ceremony.

Spaulding, 63, argues that as the veterans get older, they’ll be looking for the comradery that the legion provides.

“When they get to be 50s and above, they’re gonna be looking for this, guaranteed,” he said.

The legion, which meets the first Monday of each month at 6:30 p.m., focuses on providing community service and veteran support in the area.

The only necessary qualification is an honorable discharge, Spaulding said, and members don’t have to live in Skowhegan to join that post.

The organization works to support children’s activities and seniors in the area, as well as veterans, through both donations and volunteer work, Spaulding said.

Bob Mercer, the adjutant for the post, said they provide some funds for Lake George and the Maine Blind Camp.

The Legion also provides an event hall that’s free for other organizations in the area to use.

Right now, the post has about 110 members, down from about 150 or more a decade ago. While the total number is going down, the group still has a decent percentage that show up for meetings. Sometimes as many as 30 people attend a meeting, and the average is about 20, according to Spaulding.

“When I was a state officer, I went to a few meetings where there was one or two people,” he said.

When Spaulding became commander of the post, though, he had a goal of getting 200 members. They reached over 150 at one point, but the numbers started heading downward after a while.

“There are still so many veterans who don’t belong to any organizations in our community,” he said.

While neither Spaulding or Mercer said they had a definitive answer as to why the numbers are declining, what they hear the most from young veterans is that they’re too busy to join the organization. Spaulding said it doesn’t take that much time, and even if they can’t attend all of the meetings, if they can make the yearly dues, it will help the post survive for a day when they’re not as busy and looking to be a part of something.

Another reason may be the typical Mainer mentality.

“They aren’t joiners,” Mercer said. “That’s the Maine way, you know?”

They’re still optimistic that the members will come, though.

“You have to wait for people to reach a certain age,” Spaulding said, and Mercer added they’re hoping veterans from the Iraq War will soon become interested. “We have to wait it out. We’re not gonna quit … Everybody’s in the same boat.”

Spaulding said no to joining the legion at first, too, he said.

He served in the U.S. Marine Corps toward the end of the Vietnam War, he said, and served on the Navy ship USS Guadalcanal. When the war was over, Spaulding said a lot of Vietnam veterans weren’t eagerly welcomed into groups like the legion and especially the local Veterans of Foreign Wars organization, and both suffered from that.

“The guys from World War II felt that they were more seasoned,” said Mercer, 78, who was in the U.S. Navy between the Korean War and the Vietnam War and as a result never saw combat.

But not all of the Post 16 members felt that way. One, Royce Knowles, who has since died, cornered Spaulding in a hardware store and handed him a piece of paper.

“He said, ‘Here, sign this,’ so I said OK and signed it. He says, ‘Congrats, you’re a member of the American Legion now,'” Spaulding said.

Mercer uses Knowles’ strategy for recruiting new members, and contacts people one-on-one, he said.

“(Knowles) was one of those quiet, soft-spoken (people), but when he talked to you, you got the message,” Mercer said, adding that if they ever renamed the legion, it would be after Knowles.

It was still hard for a new member to get his ideas heard, and Spaulding remembers that. He thought the legion’s building should get new doors and windows, but had to wait until he became a commander to even get the group to vote on the idea.

Post 16 now is open to new ideas from younger veterans, especially if they think it will help draw in more members.

“Things change with time, so let the new ones bring in new ideas,” Spaulding said. “(…) They could teach us how to use a smartphone.”

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour

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