Two of the groups holding ceremonies today to honor the service of men and women in the American military are struggling — with varying success — to try to stem a decline in membership.
“Unfortunately, we haven’t had new recruits for a very long time,” said Bill Bilger, commander of the Havre Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 497. “That’s one of the reasons we had to close the doors on the club.”
The VFW and its auxiliary, along with the American Legion Post 11 and its auxiliary, and the Disabled American Veterans, which make up the Hill County United Veterans Council, once again sponsored Veterans Day ceremonies in Havre this morning, followed by serving refreshments in the Elks Club.
In years past, Veterans Day ceremonies held by the memorial wall next to Town Square on 1st Street, were followed by ceremonies in the VFW Club. That club closed earlier this year when the post could no longer make its mortgage payments.
Bilger said the lack of membership in the post, leading to the declining number of people visiting the club, was one of the main reasons the VFW had to turn the club back over to the bank.
Jed Damson, adjutant for the Havre American Legion post and commander of the district, said he has had some success in recruiting new Legion members.
“We’ve really had a good program going for that,” Damson said. “We’re still out there looking for veterans who will join.”
Damson said he has received some training from representatives on the national level that has helped with recruiting. One of the keys is showing what benefits joining will give the veterans, he said.
“I just don’t think a lot of veterans know about the American Legion,” Damson said.
History of the national groups
The VFW and American Legion each have been in operation for a century, with many of the national programs available for veterans stemming from their efforts.
VFW sprang from efforts starting in 1899 when survivors of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and the Philippine Insurrection in 1899 formed groups to push for programs to help the veterans of those conflicts, the VFW website reports.
By 1915, VFW membership had grown to 5,000 across the United States. By 1936, that had mushroomed to nearly 200,000. The organization reports its current membership at nearly 1.26 million.
The organization has championed causes for veterans, including work to create the first GI bill , the development of the national veterans cemetery system and the fight for compensation for Vietnam vets exposed to Agent Orange and for veterans diagnosed with Gulf War Syndrome
Recently, VFW helped push through the new GI bill in 2008, including expanding educational benefits to America's active-duty service members, and members of the Guard and Reserves, fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
VFW also is active with community service, such as local volunteer efforts Voice of Democracy and Patriot’s Pen contests, scholarship programs and other programs that directly benefit veterans.
American Legion history is only a few years shorter. The American Expeditionary Force convened its first caucus in Paris March 15-17, 1919. It held a caucus a month later in St. Louis where the name American Legion was adopted. The organization was chartered by Congress in September that year.
The organization’s website reports that the American Legion now has 2.6 million members.
The American Legion also has championed veterans issues, including pushing for the creation of the U.S. Veterans Bureau — today’s cabinet-level Department of Veterans Affairs — and the GI Bill.
The organization has created community programs ranging from American Legion Baseball to Boys Nation and the Boys State programs and annual oratorical programs, as well as programs for veterans.
Trying to help veterans
Damson said one way the Legion has worked — with some success — to recruit new members is to show what the Legion offers veterans.
“We try to show them the benefits they receive,” he said.
He added that between the different groups — including the Legion itself, the auxiliary, for spouses of members, and the Sons of the American Legion, open to those whose parents served in the military — virtually anyone can be involved.
“We cover pretty much everybody as a family, and they can do things as a family,” he said.
Along with the camaraderie — and the opportunity to continue serving in their own community as volunteers — there are many programs that directly benefit Legion and Sons of the American Legion members, Damson said.
Those include discounts at about eight hotel chains, on satellite television service, from some computer manufacturers and retail chains, on eyeglasses and on veterans holiday vacation packages, he said. Other programs include discounts on insurance and special home mortgage packages, prescription drugs and car and truck rentals. Even discounts on ordering flowers are available.
VFW offers benefits directly to its members and to active members of the service. That includes helping service members and their families pay for unmet needs, providing opportunities for service members and their families keep in touch during deployment; providing assistance in learning about, applying for and receiving federal benefits; and providing events to departing or returning veterans on the local level.
Bilger said providing help is one of the key activities of local posts.
“We try to do things for the community,” he said, adding that, “many veterans do have need of temporary help.”
But the lack of members at Post 497 creates a vicious circle, Bilger said. While the post wants to recruit members, the lack of members cuts into that effort. The post has been unable to start any major campaigns to find new members.
“When we know about people interested, we try to recruit them,” he said.
He added that people interested in learning more about Havre’s VFW post could contact him or Ruben McKinney.