Leaner and meaner
Flagging membership is partly due to a smaller pool of veterans, the VFW and American Legion say. The legion’s sign-up rate of eligible veterans has remained about 25 percent for decades, said Ash, the state commander.
“As the number of veterans in Minnesota has declined, so have our membership numbers,” he said. “But we are leaner, meaner and still carrying on the work of helping veterans, helping our communities and our youth.”
Such services are what posts need to emphasize with potential recruits, post commanders say. Many support Scout troops and youth sports teams, run scholarship contests and, on holidays, place flags on veterans’ graves. Some posts have been downplaying their bars and experimenting with day care services and computer kiosks, Ash said.
“The one expression you hear the most is, ‘I don’t need another watering hole,” Wright said. “The perception is still out there that it’s just a bunch of guys sitting around drinking, telling war stories.”
To be sure, some clubs are thriving. The American Legion post in Long Prairie, northwest of St. Cloud, moved into a new building in 2004, doubling its space. With donations and fish fries, the $300,000 mortgage was paid off in seven years — 14 years ahead of schedule.
Then they put up a new sign with a bright, digital display that can be seen from Hwy. 71. Its $30,000 cost? Also paid off.
“People appreciate our service, the club’s cleanliness, the camaraderie,” said Commander Gary Peterson, who served in the Navy from 1964 to 1972.
The post pays a full-time bar manager, but volunteers do everything else. Peterson himself is down at the club four times a week, he said, making repairs and finishing projects. Membership stands at 250, an all-time high.
“Right now, we’re holding our own,” Peterson said. “We’d like more new, younger members. They’re the ones who will keep it alive.”
Dinger letters didn’t help
At Cambridge’s monthly meeting, the accessories told the story of the post’s aging membership: Thick glasses, hearing aids, canes.
Darrell Johnson, 70, stood to give an update on membership: 310 dues-paying veterans. Despite rounds of “dinger letters” reminding folks to pay, that’s short of the 405-member goal for 2013.
“And we ain’t got much [time] left in this year,” said Johnson, who served in the Navy from 1960 to 1966. Each funeral hurts, he said, and recently, the post’s color guard did two in one day. “A lot of our members are older and they’re dying.”
In the new space, Cambridge post leaders hope to create a casual, “coffee-shop atmosphere” that attracts families, said Commander Clark Swanson. So far, they’ve painted and put up several flags. But the sign outside still advertises “Christian Books and Gifts.”
John Mancuso, 33, doesn’t mind that the new post lacks a bar. He joined the legion to “keep serving my country.” Mancuso served in the Marines for “two years, three months and 18 days,” until he suffered a traumatic brain injury after sliding down a 40-foot cliff.
Some veterans his age think the legion is “all a bunch of old fogies,” he said. “But I like talking to old guys.”