If membership is the lifeblood of the American Legion then I would suggest that community is the oxygen to that lifeblood. In the Preamble we recite “….TO INCULCATE A SENSE OF INDIVIDUAL OBLIGATION TO THE COMMUNITY, STATE AND NATION…” always interested in building a better nation, the founders of The American Legion believed that such building must start first with the individual in his own community. So, they made it one of the cardinal principles of The American Legion to inculcate that sense of personal obligation to the community, state and nation into the individual citizen. That means educating the citizen-young, old and future-in his and her responsibility to be active in making the hometown a better place in which to live, in discharging the duty of voting in elections, in paying taxes promptly, in contributing to community chest funds and to blood banks. The word "inculcate" means "to impress by frequent admonitions" and "to enforce by frequent repetitions." Like the duties themselves, the reminders that they remain to be carried forward, are never finished. (from the National American Legion).
As I was traveling to one of the American Legion Posts assigned to me I recalled my District Commander’s comment- “you will love this Post, it is a Post you have to experience and one you will not forget.” Well, I thought I knew just what he meant since I started my journey with the American Legion some 28 years ago in a small community, Post 905 in Springwater, NY, I am familiar with small towns and the unique role of the American Legion Posts in these small towns. But even I wasn’t quite prepared for Post 8.
It was 7AM on a Sunday morning and I was heading out to attend a Post breakfast at Ray Dozier Post 8 is in the 11th District of the Department of Georgia nestled between Atlanta and Augusta. In Taliferro County you will find the sleepy town of Crawfordville; 572 folks in the town and barely 2000 in the county. This community has one of the oldest American Legion Post not just in Georgia, but in the country and is situated in a county with the fewest veterans in the entire state of Georgia.
So, as 35 folks gathered Sunday morning for an awesome country breakfast and comradely I was to find out that excitement was high as the Commander would announce three new members with a potential of three more to come. This was incredible news since one of my reasons for being there was to present the Post with yet another streamer and certificate for 100% membership! These new members would be added to their already impressive 108% membership.
As I prepared to visit this Post I did my due diligence of research to understand, or at least try to understand, their journey. Like all posts, membership proves a struggle and Post 8, this 100-year Post, was no different. Over the years, membership has dwindled. For the most part age and Post Everlasting has had a large impact on its membership. If the Post was to be saved then it seemed it would need to reinvent itself to be relevant to its community. It doesn’t have a lounge or a bingo and lottery license. But as it’s active members died and it was reduced to two veterans, they were determined to do just that, save it and make it relevant. And so, on the backs of their 85-year-old Commander and 80-year-old Adjutant they set out to revitalize the Post that they belonged to by recommitting to the community that they loved. And the community responded. Veterans returned and community support returned through simple ideas like cook-outs, breakfasts, school visits, local business involvement, and open houses they inculcated their community and reinvigorated the brotherhood of veterans to the purpose of why they had become an American Legion Post. Their efforts have exceeded their membership goals now for the last 2 years.
Post 8 received its temporary charter on August 16, 1919 and its permanent charter on 25 May 1922, days before Decoration Day. Housed in a building over a century old, it was the town’s General Store which was moved by wagon to a donated piece of land, Post 8 fell on tough times. Now as the years have waned, membership, as well as the population, has fallen. Post 8, like so many other posts in this nation cover so many eras of Veterans and age, the oldest member being 97 years old and its youngest being 47. However, the younger members no longer live in the area they are sons of members that went on to serve themselves and have relocated and so the youngest active member in town is 72. Her membership consists of three WWII vets, five Korean War Vets, sixteen Vietnam Veterans, and five Persian Gulf veterans.
But membership struggles are nothing new to the American Legion Posts of today. As we search for the reasons why we, as an organization, continue to not attract new members (and retain members). Perhaps we need to understand how these small communities keep their Posts. We step over understanding how these smaller Posts grow and survive. Post 8 in Crawfordville, Georgia went all the way down to two (2) members. Faced with the need to revitalize or go away, they chose the former over the latter. They looked for ways to engage the community and to be engaged. Crawfordville, Georgia American Legion Post 8 is a snapshot of so many small posts that dot this nation. Faced with an aging membership and the need to engage the younger generation of veterans and their families required re-evaluation.
As I sat and chatted with members and their Families, I was drawn to the completeness of the word “inculcate”. I smiled as I listen to the Commander introduce (though no introduction of any townsperson was needed) one of the newest members-who he pointed out took him 5 years to get him to join. Making the point of frequent repetition pays off.
The American Legion has been the face of America’s Veterans for 100 years, and since its beginnings in 1919 its emblem has been the symbol for service to veterans, community, and nation. These faithful men and women have been, and continue to be, the fabric of this nation and their communities. But so often the business of a post gets in the way of the purpose of the post. And it’s the latter not the former that new veterans and their families are seeking. This isn’t new. As veterans from different eras come on the landscape, ideas and needs change. It is the old guard vs new guard syndrome. To overcome this pattern, members must consciously see the value added of these new members and ideas and new members need to respect where those before them have gone. But perhaps just as important as acceptance of these needs is the reexamination of the question why they became a Legionnaire in the first place. Remember a core purpose is to understand the needs, wants, and desire of the community we are in and design our programs and efforts to fit in with our community and their plans. To inculcate a sense an individual commitment.
Have a strategic plan for the incorporation of the fraternal side of the Post, just like you have a business plan for the lounge. Only make the former the priority. When you do that and you ask someone to become a member, the answer of why they should join will roll off your tongue. Your understanding of why you joined is the passion that the new member needs to see.
As I left Post 8 and headed back to the big city, I couldn’t help but think about how these “old dogs” did in fact learn new tricks; and that there was much that the new pups still had to learn about what it means to be a Post where members are part of building their community versus simply being a card carrying member of a Post.