Members of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3335 in Jay prepare to distribute Christmas packages in Jay. From left are John Dube, David Lachapelle, Jim Manter and Cmdr. Don Frechette. Gary Desjardin, chairman of Franklin County Special Olympics, assisted in the project. Submitted photo

Dwindling membership is an issue many veteran organizations are facing statewide and those nestled in Western Maine have not been immune.

Several members of Mundt-Allen American Legion Post 81 in Bethel gathered at the local airport to discuss issues facing the American Legion. A big problem, and one that has plagued organizations nationwide, is building and maintaining membership. Once enjoying more than 100 active members, Post 81 is now at 66. The decline has occurred over 20 years.

“It’s a function of the demographics nationwide,” Cmdr. Scott Cole said. “There is a smaller percentage of the population going into the military.”

“It’s harder and harder to get the younger veterans involved,” said Richard Grover, a Korean War veteran.

Bob Everett, a Vietnam veteran, agreed with Grover. Everett estimated the average age of Post 81 members is “well over the of age 65,” with Korean and Vietnam veterans making up the bulk of them. The post has far fewer members from more recent conflicts and there are no longer any active World War II veterans, according to Everett.

“There’s got to be a cause for people to join the Legion,” member Dicky Farren said. “There has to be a purpose. If you want someone to be a member, you need a reason for them to get involved. When you’re young and you come out of the service I don’t think your instinct is to join the Legion, unless you have a specific plan in mind.”

Farren guessed that many young veterans will end up joining the post when they are older, much like he did. The soon-to-be 84-year-old has been a member for nearly three decades and was convinced to join by a good friend and fellow member, Sonny Bean.

Farren admitted he wishes members could do more for veterans in town, especially ones who have disabilities. It is more of a challenge given everyone’s age.

Moving forward, the post wants to do a better job attracting younger veterans with hopes of bridging the generational gap. One thing they all have in common is their military service.

Grover mentioned the American Legion can also be a place where people can share war stories.

Cole emphasized there is never any pressure on members once they join, no time commitments or set expectations, just being a part of something special.

“We’re always looking for members,” Vietnam veteran George Angevine said.

The post holds in-person meetings the second Tuesday of each month and members are masked. Cole said there have been discussions about switching to online meetings via Zoom but he feels it’s important for members to have face-to-face interactions. It also gives members a sense of normalcy, considering their monthly dinners have been curtailed for close to a year and they had to cancel annual Memorial and Veterans Day observances.

“If you got a (Discharge from Active Duty) 214 form and are in the greater Bethel area we would love to have you join,” Cole said. “The diminished numbers do not diminish the purpose.”

Greenwood

At Jackson-Silver American Legion Post 68 in Greenwood, the membership situation is similar.

Over five years ago, member Harry Orcutt began compiling information on membership. His study showed in 2015-16 that  out of 105 members most were Vietnam and Korean War veterans. The rest were from the Gulf War, War on Terror, World War II and Grenada, Lebanon and Panama conflicts.

Today, the post has 68 members.

Many of Jackson-Silver’s traditional activities were not held last year because of coronavirus, but there was a Memorial Day ceremony and a small remembrance on Veterans Day. The new coronavirus restrictions also put a damper on the post’s recruitment process, but Orcutt said the Legion Act, signed in 2019, allows anyone who has served from the advent of hostilities in 1941 to present day to be eligible for veteran programs and benefits.

“This has increased our potential to attract many more members who were heretofore ineligible,” Orcutt said. “We hope the post can rebuild membership through these recent changes.”

Fundraising activities have also come to a halt since the pandemic hit. Before that, the post started to build a financial reserve to pay for work on the building and basic operational expenses.

“Those funds are now being dissipated just to keep the building viable while the limits of occupancy as directed in state proclamations preclude fundraising activities, assuming it were possible to attract the patrons to support them,” Orcutt said.

He said between oil, insurance and electricity, nearly $16,000 is needed each year to keep the post going. Despite the situation, Orcutt remains positive the post will power through.

“The members of the post are determined to succeed because of the knowledge that if … Jackson-Silver Post 68 did not exist, the social and community life of Greenwood, Woodstock, Milton Township and East Bethel would be very much diminished,” Orcutt said.

Farmington

Prior to the pandemic, members of James A. McKechnie VFW Post 10881 were gathering in the basement of the Town Office, but COVID-19 restrictions brought a halt to that meeting spot. Now, the 28 members gather at one member’s  business.

While Cmdr. Gordon Webber has secured land on Industry Road, the money simply is not there to construct a hall.

“We met out on the property all summer,” Webber said.

Aside from having no official meeting spot, the group of 138 members is also dealing with dwindling numbers as members age.

“We’ve been dealing with people passing away, said Gordon, a Vietnam veteran. “You gotta realize that World War II, Korea and Vietnam, we’re all dying at about the same pace now because we’re all older, I mean, generally.”

To raise money, Gordon offers to pick up bottles and sorts them at Ron’s Bottle Redemption. The money goes toward supporting veterans’ needs from a truck repair to medical bills.

Gordon also supports members with navigating Department of Veterans Affairs benefits, one of the biggest draws for people to join organizations such as the VFW.

For Matt Smith, commander of Roderick-Crosby American Legion Post 28 in Farmington, the main way he recruits new members is advertising his assistance to navigate VA benefits.

He said he encounters many veterans who still feel as though they have not earned their benefits and he spends a significant amount of time convincing them to take advantage of them.

“Even myself, I waited 20 years before I went into the VA and I wish I hadn’t,” the 51-year-old said in a phone interview.

“We just didn’t think we had earned it, a lot of the veterans don’t … those of us that are in it, we all know better,” he said. “We signed up, we earned our time and we’ve earned our benefits.”

During the first three months of the pandemic, the post was closed. The monthly meetings that include a family-style meal haven’t taken place for almost a year. Instead, members are keeping in touch through a buddy system.

“We have what we call the buddy system where everybody just checks in on everybody,” Smith said. “There’s emails that go out two to three times a month on different things that we’re still working on behind the scenes, and just reaching out and saying, ‘Hi, how are you doing? Do you need anything?’”

The post hosted fundraisers this past summer such as car washes and a takeout lobster crawl, but they’re looking for new ways to bring in revenue.

“We have to be out there all of the time to raise money and in small communities you have several groups, they’re all chasing the same people,” Smith said.

Now, the post is operating on the bare essentials since the building is not rented for events. Despite the lack of fundraising, the post’s scholarship fund is still strong, for now.

“Our scholarship fund is fairly healthy so this year it didn’t take a hit,” Smith said. “If we’re not able to fundraise in the future then that’s going to have to go away which we obviously don’t want.”

The lack of new members also poses a risk to the post’s future with only one new member joining in the past year. And although the post has a considerable number of members, only about 40 attend monthly meetings and are actively involved.

“We’ve held on well compared to other groups, but we’re all struggling for new membership,” Smith said.

The lack of new members affects the post’s color guard, one of the main reasons Smith joined. Without more active people, it’s difficult to maintain the color guard’s traditions of attending parades, memorials and funerals.

Jay

Don Frechette, commander of the Frank L. Mitchell VFW Post 3335 in Jay, echoed the same concern. He also joined a veterans’ organization to be involved with the color guard, but there are few, younger members carrying on the tradition.

“It’s like any other organization, you’ve got a handful that have to do everything,” Frechette said.

The post has 241 members, 175 of them age 70 and older. Much like the Farmington Post, only a fraction of the members, about 30, attended monthly meetings prior to the pandemic.

The post has been raising money by hosting weekly takeout suppers with the local auxiliary.

Friday night takeout suppers draw anywhere from 38 to 55 “and it at least brings in enough money where we can keep the lights on and keep the heat going, which basically we’re just trying to wait this thing out,” Frechette said.

The post and auxiliary also hosted barbecues throughout the summer, raising enough money to keep the building running into the fall.

“To see what the place used to be and the way it is today, it’s awful hard to be totally upbeat about the whole thing,” Frechette said.

Looking ahead to spring, Frechette and Smith said the Jay Post wants to launch a campaign to recruit veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Smith is planning to use Zoom to initiate the Post’s first member meeting since March 2020.

“We gotta do something,” Smith said. “We’ve been closed for almost a year and we can’t be closed a whole lot longer.”

Jim Manter, judge advocate for the post, said there were no new members in 2020. The past couple of years enrollment has been “relatively stable” at 247, he said.

When it comes to building membership, things become trickier.

“The VFW membership requirements are more restrictive … than our fellow brethren veterans organizations” such as AMVETS and the American Legion,” Manter said. “Hence, the pool to draw new, eligible interested members is smaller for our post,” Manter said.

“With the declining economic conditions of our tri-county area, younger qualifying veterans are just not moving back into our post’s geographic area, again reducing this pool of eligible and potential members,” he said. “Today’s exiting military members also have a drastically different social networking ethic and interest, compared to our existing membership base and skills. Of our 247 members, only two-thirds of them are within 25 miles of our post.  Seventeen percent of our lifetime members live out of state.”

Even for members who live in the area, participating has its challenges. A good number are in the “high risk” category for COVID-19. Many members already have service-related disabilities or other health concerns, Manter said.

“I would say that one-third of our previous regular monthly attending members no longer attend any meetings due to the risk of COVID-19,” he said. “The challenge is being able to reach out to these members who no longer attend meetings and functions, and knowing if they are OK. Even if they need assistance, the traditional methods of showing up to help, visit, etc., have changed. You always have in the back of your mind, their risk and exposure from an in-person simple drop-in visit to check up with them.”

National Council member Lynn Dunton of the VFW Post auxiliary said some of its 12 programs continued despite COVID-19, including the Thanksgiving pie sale and sock hop in December that resulted in donations of nearly 800 pairs of socks.

There were no poppy sales because disabled veterans who help make them could not meet in-person.

Traditional fundraising efforts were suspended because of the virus, but there were takeout barbecue chicken dinners in the summer and takeout dinners in November with help from the auxiliary.

The post did receive a generous offering from one member but it was not enough to cover budget shortfalls, according to Manter.

The future will  depend on gaining new members and more frequent involvement by members, Manter said. The post’s present motto for fundraisers is “help us survive to keep our traditions alive.”

Livermore Falls

Jocelyn Mosher-Collins, commander of George Bunten American Legion Post 10 in Livermore Falls, echoed Manter’s comments on older members.

“Members that belong to the post are older and at risk,” she said. “COVID-19 has made it very difficult to get together.”

Even before COVID-19, only a few members were attending meetings, she said.

Membership has decreased to 68 over the past few years. Two members passed away last year.

“The outlook for George Bunten Post 10 is scary,” she said. “I am not sure how we will bounce back from this, but it will take the whole membership to plan and participate in fundraisers so that we can continue to support our scholarship programs and community,” Mosher-Collins said.

Paris

Foster Carroll Post American Legion Post 72 in South Paris didn’t add any members in 2020 and five passed away, but none from COVID-19. There are 55 active ones on the roster.

“There is not much going on we can do,” Cmdr. Sarah Glynn said. “I am one of the youngest people in our post. Many have health issues. Normally we have about 12 who regularly come to meetings and maybe 20 who participate in activities and projects.

“But with (COVID) numbers climbing, our members are at risk,” she said. “A few have cardiac issues and I don’t want to expose them. People want to help, but they’re hesitant. So I made the decision to shut down meetings, cancel our Christmas party and informed members that we would not meet in person.”

With no dinners or other activities, the post is in rough financial shape, she said. The building is still rented for functions but bookings are way down and the revenue is not covering the cost to heat it. But Glynn is biding her time until the post reconnects face-to-face.

“We plan to reopen for meetings when we can, following whatever guidelines are in place,” she said. “If they relax or people can get vaccinated I will feel more comfortable. Our members’ average age is in their 70s and I don’t want to expose them.”

Floyd W. Harlow Jr. VFW Post 9787 in Paris is faring a bit better through the pandemic, with a higher membership, Cmdr. Teresa Drag said. Still, the average age there is 73 and meeting in person is out of the question now.

While the Post has a much higher membership, it matches the American Legion Post when it comes to meeting attendance and participation. Drag said a number of people belong to and are active with both groups.

“We do rentals also, although everything in December and January has been canceled,” Drag said. “It’s more work to clean after a rental now, sanitize and clean doorknobs and all that. It’s hard to manage because people are supposed to keep their distance. It’s a toss-up.”

The VFW Post was able to hold its regular suppers through the fall and did takeout meals in October and November. With virus cases climbing in December, takeouts were discontinued.

“Takeout is so much more dependent on the weather,” Drag said. “We don’t have a canteen, no setup for people to preorder and pay in advance by credit.

“I feel bad when we cancel,” she said. “It’s not just a fundraiser for us. It’s a community service for people to stay in touch and in contact. We don’t like to cancel but there is only so much you can do for protective measures. It’s too hard right now.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is veterans still need assistance and both Posts do what they can to help.

“Our members do need help from us,” Glynn said. “We handle that personally. Some people have needed to quarantine so we step up and help get groceries or whatever they need.”

Drag said VFW members set up a schedule to drive an elderly member for a window visit with his wife in a nursing home until it became too cold. Another member needed a water heater and someone was found to repair it.

Social media has helped keep veterans connected as well.

“Just recently we got a call from a nonmember veteran who was out of firewood,” Drag said. “They didn’t come to us, but one of their neighbors reached out on Facebook. We were able to get him wood the same day, and soon after found someone who donated enough to take him through the winter.”

Recruitment used to be one of the biggest challenges facing local veterans group. These days that isn’t even on the radar, but their missions continue.

Glynn and Drag said they are anxious to get their organizations through the pandemic, then reestablish participation, hoping new membership is part of it.


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