As delegates convene on Saturday at the Minneapolis Convention Center for the national convention of the American Legion, the nation's largest wartime service organization will be in the midst of a fight of its own -- to stay relevant.
To attract and serve today's modern veteran, the American Legion needs to recognize the value of online services and issues such as women in the military. While the American Legion hall down the street may continue as meeting place and de facto community center, the organization has to do more than sponsor baseball leagues and corn feeds. It will have to balance the needs of the vast bubble of Vietnam-era veterans -- who now make up the bulk of the 2.4 million member organization -- with a new generation of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Nationally, American Legion membership is down from a high of 3 million members.
"We are a changing organization. You just have to be able to improvise, overcome and adapt," said American Legion National Commander Jimmie Foster.
The Legion recently completed a survey of more than 3,000 female veterans on changes they would like to see in the Veterans Affairs system, a recognition of the growing role of women in the military. With unemployment among young veterans in the double digits, Foster met personally with President Obama to lobby for a fix. (Obama will be in Minneapolis to address the group Tuesday.)
Still, as the convention was about to begin, a stroll through the ballroom of vendors Friday revealed the realities of the demographics: booths for insurance companies, hearing aids and comfortable pillows. There were more than a few early arrivals making their way with the help of canes and power chairs.
To potential new members, Foster offers up the services of an organization with a daily presence on Capitol Hill and the numbers to influence change.
"We'll say, 'OK, Mr. Politician, how are you going to vote? We have good memories. If you don't do that we'll ... find you and remind you that you did not vote the way you said you would.'"
Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434