- Associated Press - Thursday, May 22, 2014

POWELL, Wyo. (AP) - Color the American Legion red, white and gray.

Its rapidly aging members are blue, too, as they contemplate the declining fortunes of the veterans association. It was founded by World War I veterans in France and chartered by Congress in 1919, but as its centennial approaches, the American Legion’s future is uncertain.

“Membership is going away,” said Gary Lucus, a member of the American Legion Hughes-Pittinger Post 26 in Powell. “We don’t have a lot of younger guys. That’s the problem. I think it’s going to go away.”

That’s the case nationally, as membership has declined from 3.1 million in the mid-1990s to 2.4 million and dropping now.

Adjutant Pat Miller, 69, a past commander of both the local post and District 4 in Wyoming, is a mainstay at the local post and during its activities.

Miller, an Oil City, Pennsylvania, native, met her husband Dick, a Cody native and Powell High School graduate, when they served in the Air Force in the mid-1960s. The couple will mark their 50th anniversary this fall, and spending time at the Legion, and serving the club and its members, has long been a passion for Pat.

She isn’t ready to sound “Taps” for the organization just yet.

“There’s been a lot of rumors about that. I don’t see that happening, really,” Miller said. “What the Legion is trying to do now is - a lot of the policies and practices are changing. We need to reach out to younger people.

“What they used to do isn’t working anymore, and we have to change with the times,” she said. “We need to involve their kids. That’s what they want.”

For decades, World War II veterans were Legion linchpins. Sixteen million Americans wore uniforms during that global conflict, and many of them joined their local Legion post. But there are only a little more than 1 million WWII veterans still alive, and according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, an average of 640 die every day.

Lucus is a Cody native who served 26 years in the Marine Corps. He joined the Powell post a decade ago and has served as an officer.

His wife, Peggy, is active in the Legion Auxiliary, which has long been a key part of the nonprofit organization. It sponsors Girls State and Girls Nation events.

It sponsors Boys State and Nation, American Legion baseball, oratory contests and high school rodeo. It lobbies for veterans as well as serving as a wellspring of patriotism in local communities, including serving as the honor guard at veterans’ funerals.

“There are so many programs that people are not even aware of,” Miller said.

The bar is a consistent money-maker, and while the post does not serve meals on a regular basis, that may change, she said. It does hold events where people dine, drink and dance, and the hall also can be rented.

While the American Legion post is a club, non-members are always welcome, Miller said.

Low-stakes legal gambling also is a draw. Bingo is played, while pull tabs and shake of the day are offered to give members a chance to win a few dollars, and dances are held from time to time. The Powell American Legion Post sponsors a Boy Scout Troop - Troop 26, which bears the same number as the post.

Lucus said Legion officials can assist veterans with claims they file and help them in other ways. It’s a social club but also one that supports its members.

But the men who march in parades, fire rifles on Veterans Day and Memorial Day and make sure American flags are displayed properly are dying off. They are not being replaced by younger veterans.

“Everybody’s too busy,” Lucus said. “Everybody’s trying to make ends meet. And they’re sitting home playing games with their thumbs.”

He said while the Powell post and others are trying to recruit members, it’s an uphill climb. The post had 210 members in 2000; it has 159 now, although Miller hopes more will soon be added.

But she admitted many rarely take part in post activities, and Lucus said many are members in name only. The average age is 58.

“That’s the problem with any volunteer association,” he said. “It’s just hard to get folks who are child-bearing age to join. They are too busy putting food on the table.”

There’s also competition for the 22.7 million American veterans, with the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), the Vietnam Veterans of America, as well as clubs for those who served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and other military engagements.

Lucus, 74, is a life member of both the Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). He said the two clubs have many dual members, and they may have to unite at some point to survive.

Other steps have been taken, including allowing junior members to join with the hope that they will become legionnaires when they get older. The American Legion also accepts people whose father or grandfather served; they are designated as Sons of the American Legion.

The Powell post also has an affiliated motorcycle club called the Yellowstone Riders, made up of 22 members with an interest in both bikes and the military.

Army veteran Don Stolts, 85, has been a Legion member since 1949. Stolts said “it’s debatable” if the organization will last for many more years.

“The younger generation don’t get involved,” he said. “I don’t know what to do about it.”

Jo Ann Edmonds, 80, sat with Stolts before a dinner on March 21. It was designed to honor the 95th anniversary of the founding of the American Legion. Her late husband Duane Edmonds was an Air Force veteran.

Edmonds and Stolts laughed and talked about the club and what it has meant to them and the community. But they’re not sure what the future holds in store.

Thomas Watts, 29, of Powell, was also at the dinner. Watts, who served nine months in Bahrain with the Wyoming Army National Guard, was the speaker for the event.

But he said he doesn’t plan to spend a lot of time at the Legion, and for a rather surprising reason.

“I don’t want to join,” he said. “I don’t feel what I’ve done is of the caliber of what they did over there.”

His wife Jessy, 29, and their daughter Hayden, 6, also attended the 95th anniversary celebration. Jessy said the Legion needs to do more to create “awareness” in the community of what it offers. More might attend events or join if they were informed, she said.

On the other side of the coin is Powell resident Bill Pearl, 83, who joined the Legion after he served during the Korean War more than 60 years ago.

The Colorado native, a Navy veteran, is popular at the post and wears a bright smile when he greets people. He said he enjoys time at the Legion and the people who spend time there.

“It’s pretty good,” Pearl said. “I like it because the people are nice and gentle.”


Information from: Powell (Wyo.) Tribune, https://www.powelltribune.com

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