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Memorial Day: WWII veteran numbers shrink to just a few

ADDISON COUNTY — When Alan Smith became adjutant of Bristol American Legion Post 19 around 25 years ago, there were more than 200 World War II veterans on the organization’s membership roster.

There are now only three — Gerald Heffernan, C. Deem Schoenfeld and Dr. Jay Keller.

It’s not surprising — but nonetheless disheartening — to see the numbers of the “Greatest Generation” diminish with time. The remaining World War II veterans, after all, are currently in their 90s or 100s. But to Smith and others who served, the loss of their WWII comrades is particularly striking, in part because their ranks aren’t being replenished by more recent veterans.

“We’ve lost around 10-15 each year,” he lamented.

It’s a similar situation at Addison County’s two other American Legion posts.

Tom Scanlon, former adjutant of Post 27 in Middlebury, said there are currently no World War II veterans among the membership.

In Vergennes, Post 14 Commander Brian Gebo said the group now counts three World War II alums: Roger Abare, Norton Davis and Joseph Recupero.

The news statewide is equally sobering.

In a March 24 message to Vermont veterans, Robert Pearl — Northern Area commander of the state American Legion — reported that around 50,000 Vermonters served in the military during World War II. Fewer than 700 of them now remain, Pearl said.

Pearl’s message reinforced a November 2023 announcement by the Department of Veterans Affairs that all World War II veterans are now eligible for no-cost VA inpatient and outpatient health care. This expansion was made possible through the Joseph Maxwell Cleland and Robert Joseph Dole Memorial Veterans Benefits and Health Care Improvement Act of 2022 (Cleland-Dole Act), signed in December 2022.

World War II veterans used to be the backbone of Legion Posts nationwide. But they and their Korean War counterparts have dwindled, to the extent that Vietnam War vets are the biggest demographic in the organization.

Smith said roughly 90% of Post 19’s current 305 members are Vietnam War veterans.

As of May 9, the Middlebury Legion counted 212 members, and the Vergennes Legion had 263, according to Vermont Legion statistics. The rosters are a fraction of what they were 25-40 years ago.

“I can foresee a future of one (Legion) post for Addison County,” Smith said of the shrinking membership numbers.

He noted younger veterans aren’t joining. Smith cited busy work schedules and a desire to engage in family activities as among the reasons for those taking a pass on Legion membership.

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