- Associated Press - Saturday, November 14, 2015

ERIE, Pa. (AP) - The American Legion: It’s not just graybeards in a smoke-filled bar.

Or not anymore, at least.

Local Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts are changing their image. While membership in veterans’ organizations nationally declines, they’re building modern post homes, offering family-friendly activities and gradually enlisting younger vets.

“The young guys have this image of the American Legion as a bunch of old guys in a smoke-filled bar talking war stories. That image was accurate, but that’s changed,” said Dave Jackson, commander of American Legion Post 494 in Girard. The post built a $1.4 million post home in 2012 and currently has about 1,800 members, including American Legion Auxiliary, Sons of the American Legion and social members.

“This is more a place where families get together, people come to watch sports, and wives come in without their husbands for lunch or just to get together with friends. It’s a mixed group in and out every day, more of a family atmosphere. We want not just veterans here, but families and kids. We’d like everybody to be involved so that we can provide the kind of services they want,” Jackson said.

Pictures from the post’s Halloween party on the post Facebook page are of mostly younger members and guests in costume.

“One of the reasons we’re growing is that people see the new club, come in for some occasion with a member, and realize that we’re not as stuffy as they think,” Jackson said.

Not as stuffy, literally. The post banned smoking in the post home on July 1.

“We try to change with the times,” Jackson said.

Battling decades of thinning ranks

Ironically, Vietnam-era veterans today dominate American Legion and VFW membership, which has steadily declined since the Vietnam War, when veterans returned without fanfare or thanks and with little interest in joining.

American Legion membership today is 2.4 million, down more than 10 percent over the past decade. The VFW currently has 1.7 million members and auxiliary members, also down in recent years.

“So many Vietnam veterans felt mistreated, or at least disliked by the population when they came home. They didn’t want to be identified as veterans,” said Jackson, who served in the Vietnam-era Army. “Talk about the delayed stress people have today; it’s really sad that these people also suffered the effects of what people thought of them, when for most of them, serving wasn’t a choice.”

Edinboro’s American Legion post folded after Vietnam, said Harry Glunt, adjutant of Edinboro Post 439, revived with just 20 members, including Glunt, 13 years ago. The “paper post” has since grown to about 145 members that meet at the Edinboro Borough Building and operate a community pool. Members are preparing to build their own post home, on Route 99 north of town, in spring.

“We do have some younger members, too, now, especially with the pool. That brings families in,” Glunt said.

Edinboro-McKean VFW Post 740 has grown exponentially in recent years — from 125 members before the new post home opened on Route 98 in 1997, to more than 1,500 in 2015 — and is considering opening a games room to attract more younger vets.

“Younger members are coming in on their own, but we’d really like to get more and are thinking of changing one of our smaller dining rooms into something they’d like a little better,” post Quartermaster Ed Denk said.

Building on growing numbers

A new post home opened during summer by American Legion Post 237 on Route 6 in Union City, near Union City, is bringing in new members. The post currently has about 1,000 members, up significantly from 2014.

“We predicted maybe a 10 percent membership increase, and we’ve exceeded that already,” said Clare Blakeslee, post adjutant.

While the new post home with plenty of parking is the major reason for that growth, its more family-centric atmosphere is another, Blakeslee said. Research done by the national and state American Legion indicate that younger veterans want a family-friendly Legion and reasonably priced family meals.

“We’ve attempted to do that, but one of our big problems is still that younger vets are raising families, going through school and starting new jobs; they don’t have time to devote to other things,” he said.

And young veterans have always viewed the Legion as a roost for graybeards.

“The old-timers say that when the World War II fellows came home, they had trouble pushing the old guys out of the way so they could do what they wanted,” Blakeslee said.

Millcreek American Legion Post 773 President Vern Smith is a self-described graybeard in a post with about 800 active and 1,800 total members, including Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. The post, at 4109 W. 12th St., like others in the region, offers free memberships for serving military.

“Old geezers like me still come in here and sit on our butts all day, but the things that we offer for younger veterans seem to be working, things like the free memberships and good food at cheaper prices than they find down State Street having fun with their friends,” Smith said.

Veterans’ posts: still serving

Public support for the military and veterans has grown since 9/11, but veterans’ organizations still lobby for veterans’ benefits and rights.

They also help veterans apply for and obtain benefits, fund student scholarships, support local fire and police departments, and raise money for charity, including cancer research and treatment, partly through a Winter Olympics-style competition at Millcreek American Legion Post 773.

Helping veterans ease back into civilian life is another service.

“We’ve been through it. If we can get together with these guys and talk with them, we can help,” Edinboro’s Glunt said.

Young veterans readjusting to civilian life support each other and get together for activities at the Girard Legion’s park on Elk Creek, according to Jackson.

“We’ve actually seen more young veterans these last couple of years than we’d seen in a long time,” he said.

Still, posts need to do a better job letting young veterans and others know of the services they provide, Jackson said.

“It’s one of the things we really don’t publicize well. We assume everybody knows we’re doing these things, and they don’t,” he said.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1WKdMRM

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Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com

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