An aging American Legion hopes to recruit new members

Ralph Stewart

Martha’s Vineyard is home to two American Legion posts, one in Edgartown and the other in Vineyard Haven. The once thriving community organizations, where military veterans once gathered and socialized, now struggle to maintain their vitality as their membership dwindles.

Legion posts on the Island, like those nationwide, are not attracting new members to replace the thinning ranks of World War II and Korean War veterans, once the backbone of the Legion, and aging Vietnam veterans. Many have died or retired off Island.

“I’ve been a member of the Legion here for about 35 years and this is the lowest point of membership,” Jo Ann Murphy, a veteran and the Island’s veterans agent, said this week. “We have about 200 members compared with 400 members 20 or 30 years ago.”

The lack of replacement membership is taking its toll on the community service that legionnaires are able to provide, Commander Al Noyes of the American Legion post 186 in Edgartown said. “I’d say only a handful of members, maybe 10, are active in legion work at our post,” he said this week.

Vernon Oliver, commander of Vineyard Haven legion post 257, was off Island and unavailable for comment.

Legion community service work on the Island includes granting of two scholarships, helping to organize the annual July 4th parade in Edgartown, providing meeting places for scouting, voting, AA, and other community groups and as a lower-cost venue for weddings and events. The legion also administers a fund that can provide financial help to returning veterans.

Nationally, the American Legion has about 2.5 million members, down from peak membership of 3.2 million members in the early 1980s and 1 million members below its goal of 3.5 million members among its 16,000 posts by the legion’s 100th anniversary in 2019.

Creation of the American Legion is generally credited to Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of the 26th president. Mr. Roosevelt first proposed the idea while serving with the American Expeditionary Force in France after the cessation of hostilities in World War I.

Officials of both the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, with membership of about 1.9 million, have noted that membership typically peaks 15 to 20 years after a war or conflict period when veterans join post-military fraternal groups after their child-raising and career plans are settled.

Ms. Murphy and Mr. Noyes said that that cycle may have changed. They said that changing national culture and the changed nature of U.S. armed conflicts play a part in reduced membership.

“I agree 100 percent that raising kids and working extra jobs to get by are factors,” Mr. Noyes said. “The younger guys, as they get out, are not interested in the fraternal aspect. There are so many things to do at night, just the online factor, for example. Participation is falling off in other segments (of society), like the fire departments, for example.

“I think it is different today. After World War II, people used the legion as a way to talk about their experiences but the conflicts today are different, not the all-out war as it was in the world wars. Conflicts today are more contained. I hope we never have to go back to another conflict or war. If so, we may not need this anymore.”

Noting that the venerable Edgartown post is getting a facelift now, Mr. Noyes said he doesn’t believe the absence of amenities, like a bar, such as that found in VFW and many posts off Island is a major factor in membership struggles. “We don’t have bars and clubhouses. A lot of legion halls off Island do, but they face the same membership challenges we do. I will say some summer people who are veterans are surprised we don’t have a bar but to me, with a bar, you’re just asking for trouble.”

Ms. Murphy has a sense of Legion history on the Island. “It’s sad to compare,” she said. “The legion started here back in 1920. We have copies of old meeting minutes. Meetings were huge. The ladies auxiliary was an important part of the legion. Legion members and the auxiliary met regularly for dinner and socialization. In contrast, we had a recruitment meeting recently for the ladies auxiliary and no one showed up.”

Ms. Murphy will continue efforts to grow membership. There is another auxiliary meeting on March 13 at 6 pm at the legion hall on William Street in Vineyard Haven. Ladies auxiliary membership asks that candidates be related to a legion member or to be a Gold Star mother. Women veterans can join both the legion and the auxiliary, she said, adding that the Vineyard Haven legion post is looking for tech-savvy volunteers to relaunch its website. Interested parties may call her at 508-693-6887.

In her job as veterans agent for the Veterans Administration, Ms. Murphy sees a difference in returning vets that may play a part in the membership struggle. She said many returning veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).

“Unlike past conflicts, virtually everyone sees combat today. Behind the lines forces don’t exist as they did in other conflicts,” she said. “I interview returning vets and if I see a potential (PTSD) problem I refer them to Community Services which has counseling services.

“The biggest thing we offer is camaraderie, supporting each other. We want to be there when they come home. It’s an honor to be there for them and they appreciate it. When a group of disabled vets came for the (Striped Bass and Bluefish) derby, some of the guys had tears in their eyes just to be thanked for their service.”