MONTPELIER -- The American Legion post in Vermont’s capital city has a simple method to help attract new members: A sign in the Main Street doorway says "members wanted."
Like many legions, Montpelier Post 3 has a bar, a pool table and televisions where members are bound together by military service, an experience few who haven’t participated in it can understand. But post leaders say being in the American Legion is much more than a veterans’ club.
It also helps veterans find the programs they are entitled to, through the Department of Veterans Affairs. But the Legion also works in the community, sponsoring a youth baseball team and sending children to camp with money they raise through fundraising raffles, bingo games and other funds. The $35 yearly membership dues pay only a small portion of their programs.
They still get new members, sometimes veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Few of them are young; most are in their 40s or even older.
"Young people today got so much going on," said post commander Dick Harlow, 74, an Army veteran who has seen membership declines in other organizations he belongs to. "It’s not just the Legion, it’s not just veterans. People are busier today, with all these gadgets they’ve got today, with the telephones, they just don’t want to get involved.
The Montpelier post’s leaders are veterans in their 60s and 70s. The days when the state American Legion Convention in Montpelier would attract more than 10,000 veterans are distant memories.
Those were the days when the men who fought World War II were still young and they hadn’t been honored yet with the title of "the greatest generation." Now the World War II generation is passing. The leadership of the Montpelier post now rests with the veterans from Vietnam, a war that was getting started half a century ago.
"We tried to recruit new members, but it’s very difficult to find them, it really is," said Charlie Karparis, 68, the post manager who has been a member since the mid-1960s, not long after he got out of the Navy. "We’ve got a few that are in their 20s, but for the majority, you might call them 50 and up."
They acknowledge it’s hard for younger people to belong to clubs when they are working to keep a job and raise a family.
What many veterans group see as the problem of dwindling membership is not unique to Montpelier or Vermont.
On its webpage, The American Legion has a section entitled "How to keep and retain members." It says the decline in membership has a serious impact on the organization’s programs. The Legion recruits about 300,000 members a year, but half drop out after the first year. It suggests ways posts can retain members.
The Montpelier post is healthier than most. It was given a boost by a $50,000 gift left in the will of a former member. They have just over 500 members, after counting the ladies’ auxiliary and youth membership. They own their well-maintained building -- a former feed store converted into the post.
Still they know they need to find new members and bring people along into the leadership positions. They’re still working at it.