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Veterans groups aim to get younger members

RON LAROSE, COMMANDER of American Legion Post 19 in Bristol, wonders what will happen to his organization if it doesn’t attract more younger members.

ADDISON COUNTY — Bristol American Legion Post 19 Commander Ron LaRose presides over a graying membership that does great service for local veterans and the community at large.

He and his fellow leaders of the Addison County veterans’ organization share a common lament: Why aren’t the younger generation of veterans becoming involved in an organization that pays great dividends for them and the community at large?

“The people we’re not getting are the people who’ve served since Desert Shield/Desert Storm,” said LaRose, referring to the military campaign to remove invading Iraqi forces from Kuwait during the early 1990s. “And this isn’t just in Addison County; it’s nationwide.”

He fears the ranks of Post 19 could dwindle to a point where it could become unsustainable.

“What’s going to hurt these Legions is we’ve got a few World War II veterans surviving, then we get into Vietnam, and those people are getting into their 70s and 80s,” LaRose said. “What’s going to happen when our membership doesn’t support our post?”

LaRose doesn’t want to see a day when Post 19 has no other choice but to vacate its headquarters at 56 Airport Road in Bristol. But barring an infusion of new interest from younger vets, it’s a scenario that needs to be contemplated, he noted.

“One of my officers says, ‘Well, we’re all going to fold our flags and be either in Vergennes or Middlebury — one Legion for Addison County,” he said.

LaRose and his colleagues aren’t quite sure why younger vets are taking a pass on Legion membership. Post 19 representatives occasionally meet one-on-one with young vets living in the 5-Town area. They talk to them about the Legion, its benefits and what it stands for. They encourage them to attend a meeting to check it out.

“We get no reaction,” he said. “That generation of veterans, for some reason, doesn’t want to be assistant Scout masters, they don’t want to be Little League coaches, they don’t want to be involved with anything. They don’t give us a reason (for turning down membership). It’s ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ unfortunately.”

Bristol, Vergennes and Middlebury American Legion officials are all — like their statewide and national colleagues — looking to attract and retain new, young members.

Established in 1919, the American Legion currently counts around 2 million members nationwide. Unfortunately, the organization has lost around 700,000 members during the past decade, as older vets pass away or are unable to remain active participants. The average age of an American Legion member is 67, according to nationwide stats.

Post 19 members have done some brainstorming and have considered a variety of outreach ideas — including trying to reach prospective young members through their spouses. Post 19’s auxiliary organization has around 150 members, its Sons of the American Legion group numbers around 220 and there are 350 folks signed up on the Post 19 membership list. All told, that’s more than 700 members of the Post 19 family.

Trouble is, not all those folks are active in local Legion activities, and some don’t even live in the Bristol area anymore. Still others are away on active duty, during which their dues are paid by Post 19 until they return.

LaRose wants all local veterans to know that membership is about more than an occasional dinner get-together and a couple hours each week in the members’ lounge. It’s about supporting fellow veterans and keeping a valuable resource alive for current and former military personnel when they need help.

AT POST 14 IN VERGENNES

BRIAN GEBO, COMMANDER of the Vergennes American Legion Post 14, says that it is tough for some younger veterans to accept an invitation to join the Legion due to other commitments.

Brian Gebo is commander of the Vergennes American Legion Post 14, based at 100 Armory Lane. He pointed to Post 14’s annual membership dinner — held this past Saturday, Nov. 5 — as part of its strategy to grow the organization. It’s an event “where we try to bring our current members back in as much as we can, and at the same time asking them — and ourselves — to look for new members and pull them in,” he said.

Gebo acknowledged the membership invitation is tough for some veterans to accept due to other commitments.

“It’s hard when you say, ‘Hey, come on in, and then we want you to help with this, this and this,’” he said with a chuckle. “Coming out of COVID, it’s tough. I think it will be a while before (membership) picks up.

“We’re trying to do sort of a low-pressure, check-it-out-and-see-what-it-is (pitch),” Gebo added.

Post 14 also uses its annual “Early Bird” and Veterans’ Day Dinners to promote the Legion — which currently counts around 150 members — to new prospects. Like Bristol, the Vergennes Legion has Auxiliary and Sons groups.

But unlike other posts in our area, the Vergennes Legion has a nearby Vermont Army National Guard Armory, at 37 Monkton Road. It’s a place where young servicepeople can be approached with membership invites.

“We have to bring new members in,” Gebo said, noting the similarity of a graying Vermont’s challenge in attracting young families. “We have to get them involved in helping other vets.”

Veterans of Foreign Wars organizations, like Middlebury’s VFW Post 7823, are in the same boat. Post 7823 Quartermaster Bub Crosby said that while the local VFW has a fairly robust roster of 190, the average age of its members is 74.

Crosby said Post 7823 uses media outreach, one-on-one pitches and special events in its efforts to expand its ranks. But it’s an uphill battle, made even tougher for the VFW because it can only draw combat theater veterans.

“It limits the scope of our membership,” Crosby explained.

Middlebury American Legion Post 27 Adjutant Tom Scanlon is getting a look at the membership challenge on multiple fronts. He’s currently serving as Legion commander for the state of Vermont.

“Some of it depends on where your post is,” Scanlon said on recruiting success. “Here in Middlebury, there aren’t a lot of young veterans.”

He acknowledged the Vergennes Armory as a good recruiting base for Post 14 and added the Rutland Legion also has an abundant pool of servicepeople and vets to draw from.

VFW POST 7823 Quartermaster Bub Crosby, shown holding the flight helmet he wore during his service in Vietnam, said his Middlebury veterans organization uses media outreach, one-on-one pitches and special events in its efforts to expand its ranks.

Scanlon recognizes the time demands on younger veterans with full-time jobs and families. He conceded he didn’t join the Legion until his early 40s.

“I only joined because I was threatened,” he said with a smile. He was at the time president of the Little League organization in his hometown in Connecticut. The Little League organization met in the local Legion Hall. A longtime friend (and fellow veteran) saw him at the Legion Hall and asked him what he was doing there. When Scanlon explained his Little League role and his desire to keep meeting at the Legion Hall, his friend said, “If you don’t join (the Legion) you won’t be able to meet here anymore.”

GETTING INVOLVED

It was the nudge Scanlon needed, and he’s been a devoted Legion member ever since. He’s contributed a lot of his time to Middlebury Post 27, which donates tens of thousands of dollars each year to charitable causes, including veterans’ services, scholarships, the Memorial Sports Center, Scouts and many others.

“It’s the way a lot of people get involved — it’s just happenstance,” Scanlon said of his own experience.

He’s found that most veterans who do sign up end up being great contributors.

“They aren’t ones who want to sit at a bar,” he said. “Those are bygone days. They want something to do — to be given a project, to be told there’s a veteran who needs a deck built, and they jump in and help.”

Like other Legion organizations, Post 27 is recruiting through a variety of avenues. And it’s also participating in a national American Legion initiative to help young veterans in need. It’s called “Be the One,” a campaign aimed at preventing suicides among veterans. “Be the One” is receiving ample promotion from National Commander Paul E. Dillard, whom Scanlon recently took on a tour of the Vermont Legion network of facilities and services. 

More than 120,000 veterans have died by suicide during the past 20 years, according to stats at legion.org.

The campaign, among other things, asks that Legions make sure their doors are open to any veteran contemplating self-harm, and to get help for that person. Help might include one call, or a combination of calls, to the national suicide hotline: dial 988, and press 1. Other forms of help might be putting the veteran in touch with their primary care physician and/or connecting the veteran to their clergy person, if the veteran is a religious individual.

“We have 12,000 American Legion posts and want them to be that place where a veteran feels comfortable to drop in and talk to someone who understands them, what they went through… and get them pointed in the right direction,” Scanlon said.

And the coalition of Vermont Legion posts has already taken some major steps in suicide prevention services. Case in point: “Josh’s House Vt.,” a wellness and recreation drop-in center for veterans located at Forth Ethan Allen in Colchester. The free facility is named for the late Josh Pallotta, a Vermont Guard member who was deployed to Afghanistan, returned with post-traumatic stress and tragically ended his life on Sept. 23, 2014.

Scanlon has made support of Josh’s House his top project during his year-long stint as state commander, and he and other supporters are raising funds to see the facility replicated in other parts of the state.

Along with creating more facilities like Josh’s House, Scanlon believes Vermont could keep more young veterans in-state by making their pensions tax-free.

“We’re losing a lot of veterans who exit the Vermont Guard and move to Tennessee and Kentucky (where military pensions aren’t taxed),” he said.

Scanlon wants to remind veterans that their Legion membership would give the organization strength in numbers when it comes to lobbying for state and federal legislation.

“Being a member means that you’re looked at as a vote,” he said. “The Legion was responsible for the GI Bill, and the Veterans Administration as we know it. There were thousands and thousands of Legion members who made those things possible, because the politicians saw that voting block was so big.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

+For more information about Middlebury Post 27, log on to americanlegionpost27.com, or call 802-388-9311.

+To learn more about Bristol Post 19, call 802-453-2951 and ask for Alan Smith, or contact Ron LaRose at 802-989-8573.

+Vergennes Post 14 can be reached at 802-877-3216.

+Contact Middlebury VFW Post 7823 at 802-388-9468.

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