For American Legion to stay relevant, it’s time to draw in younger veterans

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

A wall of photos of past American Legion Post No. 28 leaders is a stark representation that the organization’s demographic is older people. Chairman Mike Goodwin, back, and post commander Dick Messier want to change that.

American Legion Post No. 28, founded in Durango in 1921, has a problem. It’s something that all such venerable organizations must face at one time or another: Its membership is getting older and dwindling.

That’s the sobering truth. But the more hopeful truth is that in this problem lies opportunity. Any soldiers out there looking for a place to mold into a hangout that can thrive in the 21st century?

“Us Vietnam-era vets are getting to be old-timers,” post chairman and acting manager Mike Goodwin says on a recent evening. “We need for the young people coming back from our recent wars to come in and take this place over from us, because we’d hate to see it go under.”

And, he adds, they are welcome to make changes.

“As far as what they want to do and events they want to sponsor,” says Goodwin, 70, who joined the Durango Legion post in 1966 after serving in Vietnam and Berlin, “it’s all up to them.”

Sound intriguing?

The Legion owns its building and land. There’s a bar, pool table and juke box in the front room, and a large hall that can hold up to 200 guests for, well, use your imagination: weddings, parties, bands – the place gets loud on heavy-metal night once or twice a month.

It’s a Thursday, which means it’s taco day. Some Thursdays, that brings in a couple dozen visitors; tonight it’s only a dozen, if that, and half of those are involved in this story.

I’m chatting with Goodwin, Clark Cunningham, Tony Madril and Guy Gervais. And I’m sipping on a cold draft Budweiser provided by bartender Greg Grafalo, who’s also a board member; it feels like the right thing to do here (don’t tell my boss). The guys are giving it to me straight: We need younger members or we’re going to lose our relevance.

For two hours we talk about the state of the Legion, the veterans, and the world. We talk about how communication has changed in the past half-century, how participation in organizations has changed, how the military has changed. But we also note the things that haven’t changed: the camaraderie that soldiers foster, the alienation that veterans can feel.

Before going any farther, some of you (myself included) need more information and a history lesson. What is the American Legion? Who can join? How is it different from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which also has a post here?

The American Legion was formed in 1919, just after World War I, as “a patriotic, mutual-help and community service organization,” according to the Legion’s website. Trujillo-Sheets Post 28 of the American Legion was established in 1921 in Durango, named after two local veterans killed in France.

Their framed pictures hang in the hall, next to photos of post commanders from 1921 to the present (Dick Messier). From the accompanying text you learn that Joe Trujillo died Sept. 18, 1918, during the siege of Saint-Mihiel, and that Wiley Sheets died Nov. 1, 1918, during the Battle of the Argonne Forest, just 10 days before an armistice ended the war. The Durango Legion set up at its current spot around 1950, just a few years after World War II ended.

The Legion accepts members of the military who served during foreign wars, even if they didn’t serve overseas. It also has a ladies auxiliary and a Sons of the American Legion. The VFW accepts those who served in conflicts outside the U.S. The country’s first VFW sprung up in 1899 in Denver after the Spanish-American War.

For some, the Legion is a social place – a spot to talk to someone with shared experiences. That’s how it has been for folks such as Goodwin, who took over as local commander in 1968, still in his 20s, still with fresh memories of Vietnam.

“The camaraderie that we had (overseas) is what we translated to clubs like this,” says Vietnam vet Guy Gervais, 63. “That camaraderie for a lot of people is all they have going.”

Says Cunningham, “They’ve all listened to the sergeant explain to them what they’re going to do that day – whether they’ve liked it or not.”

For others it’s a support group – a place to get information on who can help with benefits, medical or financial.

“We honor the dead by helping the living,” says Cunningham, 70. “And we follow those words to the end of the line to make sure our veterans are not forgotten.”

The members are honest about the changing times. They ask: Can veterans social clubs survive in this new paradigm, where technology has forever changed the way people communicate and in an America where men often have to stay home with the kids because mom’s working? Can an Afghanistan vet establish a deep bond with a Vietnam vet? Madril says he understands how it’s easy to look at the Legion as an “old man’s club.”

Says Cunningham: “We were young when we joined. We’d look at (World War II veterans) the same way: ‘What a bunch of old guys, sitting at the bar.’ And they’d say, ‘Ah, these kids from Vietnam.’

“We know what they’re going through.”

Gervais, who finished his military stint as a drill sergeant at Fort Benning, Ga., uses the soft sell when he recruits. He doesn’t want to chase anyone away, but he wants Iraq or Afghanistan vets to understand that the alienation they may feel is not endemic to their generation.

“Maybe they don’t feel we’re sympathetic to their problems,” he says, “but we are.

“Trust me, dude, we’re there for you.” John Peel writes a weekly human interest column.

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