An old problem: Sabattus Legion gets creative to attract new members

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SABATTUS — The rabbit ears had to go.

In place of the ears and an old clunky TV, there’s a 46-inch flat screen, high-definition cable, a front row seat on game day and, two words:

Free buffet.

It’s a new lure that leaders of American Legion Post 135 hope will draw in local veterans, then get them to stay.

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And if the games don’t appeal, maybe the concerts will.

Aware of its aging and declining ranks, the post has gotten creative. On paper, it has 160 members. Only a dozen are active.

Commander Jim Caron would like to see 40 active members, even 50. He’d like it if each member showed up just once a year.

“If so-and-so would wash dishes for one breakfast over a year, that right there would be huge,” said Caron, 36. “If one member wanted to sweep the floor …”

Caron served in the U.S. Coast Guard during the Persian Gulf War. His brother Steven, 32, the post service officer, served in the U.S. Army in Iraq. Their father, Ronald, is a former post commander. The brothers were at the legion all the time as kids.

“I want to let younger veterans know that this is an OK place to be,” Jim Caron said. “Having our father raise us here, we want to make sure it succeeds.”

The post, now headquartered in a restored barn on Island Road, dates back to 1924. It has a large hall connected to a smaller canteen with tables, chairs, the new TV setup and a 100-year-old pool table that still gets a workout on Friday nights.

It’s smoke-free and draws from Sabattus, Wales and Greene.

Andre Marquis, 26, first came as a guest. He liked the atmosphere and the mission. Marquis, whose grandfather fought in World War I, is now a member of the post’s re-activated Sons of the American Legion.

“Coming in as a son and sitting with a legion veteran, it’s not, ‘You didn’t serve, I served.’ There’s none of the chest-puffing,” he said. “From day one, I fit right in.”

A volunteer firefighter and selectman in town, he’s also been a recruiting machine.

“I came down with five guys” — friends he’d brought as guests — “three of them grabbed sons’ applications and joined,” Marquis said.

Throughout the year, post members in the legion, sons, auxiliary and legion riders are active with Flag Day, the Memorial Day parade, with local scouts, Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets at holidays. They fund high school scholarships and, for the last two years, have honored families of those currently serving with the Blue Star Banner program.

They pay for all that with dues, raffles, monthly breakfasts, hall rental fees and canteen profits. In 2010, the post held its first concert as a fundraiser. The Caron’s cousin, Jeff Caron, a Lewiston native who lives in Nashville, played a show that sold out, about 120 tickets.

They had him back in October. He sold out again.

The audience ranged from mid-20s to mid-50s.

“I guarantee there were veterans in that crowd,” Steven Caron said.

The goal this year: Three more shows, kicking off with a performance by Veggies By Day in June.

Jerry DeWitt, past commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars post 9150 and adjutant of the Disabled American Veterans’ chapter 11 in Lewiston, said the Sabattus post’s experience with numbers is common.

Many veterans groups are heavy with World War II members, “most of them are too old or passed away or heading that way,” he said.

Vietnam-era veterans were “turned off and turned away” by organizations’ attitudes in the ’60s and ’70s and veterans coming back from current conflicts haven’t been as interested, he said.

His VFW post has paid dues for active military, telling them “‘we’d love to have you join when you come back.'” About two or three in 10 do.

“We need to come up with more ideas like those people down the road,” DeWitt said.

Post 135 members meet the first Monday of the most month and open their doors Tuesday and Friday nights. They plan more game day events around the Daytona 500, Red Sox and Bruins.

“If I’m sitting here at 70 years old and Post 135 is sitting here, I would be a very pleased member,” Steven Caron said.

His brother added, “That means we did something right as a post.”

kskelton@sunjournal.com

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