Local veterans groups see need for younger recruits
Storm damage from last fall has caused some American Legion members in Dickinson County to consider giving up their post – close to 100 years after the national organization's founding.
"Our building was damaged beyond repair in that storm in September, so we don't really know what we're going to be doing," Dennis Jackson, officer with the Terril American Legion Walsh Post 432, said. "We may just disband, because there's not many of us left."
The post's roof was damaged and contacted a nearby power line when a major storm swept through the Lakes Area on Sept. 20, 2018. The high winds toppled trees throughout the region, and a confirmed tornado damaged a number of buildings in Superior.
Jackson said a number of the Terril post's current members experience health and age-related issues, which makes it difficult to provide services like firing squads for military funerals. He went on to say letters were sent to each of the Terril post's 25 members, calling for a meeting to discuss whether to close the post. The post has set no timeline for that decision.
The decline in active members isn't limited to Terril's post. Several local American Legion commanders said, as World War II veterans continue to pass away, post responsibilities have been shifting toward Korean and Vietnam vets over the past 10 to 15 years.
Locally, the VFW and American Legion posts sponsor area students competing in scholarship programs, march during Memorial Day parades, promote flag etiquette and speak at Veterans Day school programs. Ann Miller, director of the Dickinson County Veterans Affairs Office, said various local posts contribute to the Veterans Holiday Gift Card Program, which helps veterans in need and their dependents during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Local contributions are also put toward the Brushy Creek Honor Flight, which carries veterans from several counties to Washington D.C. so they may see the memorials constructed in their honor. Some posts have also been known to support the widows and children of deceased veterans. Local post commanders have said those responsibilities and are being delegated to a shrinking group of veterans.
"It's like any of these service organizations," Spirit Lake VFW Commander John Chappas said. "It's just hard to get people to volunteer."
The commander said a core group of eight to 10 members are often called upon to perform during military funerals — he said the same seven are almost always part of the firing squad. Chappas often coordinates with Spirit Lake American Legion Commander Denny Perry to form a full funeral detail for the services — eight are needed for a firing squad, four for a color guard, one bugler and someone to present a folded flag to the family.
"It's harder than heck to find 14 gentleman who are veterans that are free on a Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. to go to a funeral and do that," Perry said.
Perry said past veterans relied on the church or an American Legion post after returning from service, but there doesn't seem to be as much cultural emphasis on formally joining organizations — military or otherwise — among younger generations.
"Now there's so many things going on, so many organizations, so many things pulling at them besides work and family that this has just taken a back seat," Perry said.
Many of the local post commanders agreed recruiting young veterans and keeping them involved is a challenge. Milford American Legion Commander Kirb Walters said his post has some younger veterans, but not many who are actively involved. He is hopeful, as time moves on, the next generation of veterans will take on greater roles with the post. Walters said, without an American Legion, certain aspects of local life would be missing.
"The local community won't have an organization to go to provide the patriotic side of our community and our society," Walters said. "That's the sad part … If they don't (join), somewhere down the line, there's going to be a big hole — a big void."
Former Spirit Lake VFW Commander Larry Stammers said he feels younger veterans will find their local posts to be important as they age, and he hopes the more senior veterans will do more to keep them involved.
"Some of us have been doing our job for so long — seen young people come and go — and haven't really acknowledged them or mentored them as much as we could," Stammers said. "I'd say we've got some of the responsibility too."
Both Perry and Stammers said many veterans — particularly those who served during the Vietnam War — are nearing retirement and may be able to take on more responsibility at their local posts. Perry said the state informs him periodically of area veterans who aren't associated with a post, and he actively sends them an invitation. However, membership is still trailing off, according to Perry.
"I have lost 20 members in approximately the last four years," he said, adding the post has around 90 members. "The transferred-in or new members totaled nine."
Walters said, of the Milford Legion's 117 members, around 32 served in the armed forces after the Vietnam War. He said the post had 255 members in the late 1990s, under his previous post commandership, and an all-time high of 271 when membership was dominated by World War II veterans.
In Lake Park, Legion Commander James Kessler said the post has seen some success with the younger veterans — he estimated five of the post's 57 members served during Operation Desert Storm or later.
"What we've seen is sort of positive," Kessler said. "They're busy with their families and school activities, but they are willing to participate in certain events that require a nice presence of legionnaires."
He said participation goes in cycles, but the post's traditional pork chop feed continues to see good turnout from the post's younger members. He said that's likely because the fundraiser meal often falls on a Sunday and doesn't contend with the young veterans' day jobs. Kessler said, when he joined the Lake Park post 48 years ago, the members would be called upon not only for community events, but for help recovering from local tragedies like house fires and flooded basements.
"That's kind of gone away a little bit, but that's why we need our presence here," Kessler said. "When the community needs us, they know we're here."
On the bright side, Perry said he feels patriotic ideals overall are making headway. He said he's seen fewer tattered flags recently — that said, the commander personally sells replacement flags out of his truck and isn't shy about stopping when he sees a flag in need of replacement.
"Americanism is growing in our country," he said. "Sometimes it's a two-sided deal now, but at least it's there."
- Local vets reflect on latest Honor Flight (05/22/18)
Lake Park American Legion Post 371— 20 Ave. A East
Milford American Legion Post 384— 1709 Okoboji Ave.
Spirit Lake American Legion Timpe Post 23 — 1102 15th St.
Spirit Lake John W. Kidd VFW Post 4514 — 914 Lake St.
Terril American Legion Walsh Post 432— 206 Main St.
Veterans may also join their local American Legion post online via www.legion.org