ROCK FALLS – Army veteran David Gough was discharged 48 years ago, but now finds himself on another tour of duty.
Gough, of Darlington, Wisconsin, was elected one of five national American Legion vice commanders in September. As a national officer, one of his responsibilities is to boost the organization's declining membership. On Saturday morning, his mission brought him to Rock Falls, where he stopped at Rock Falls Post 902 – one stop in a whirlwind 2,000-mile membership caravan tour.
"I have one more stop in Rockford, and that will be my 19th in 10 days," Gough said.
While Gough appeared a bit road-weary, he said it has been a productive trip.
"Illinois was 21st among 55 departments in membership, and after the caravan we should finish in the top 10," he said. "Our goal in Illinois is to have 92,000 members, and we are at about 85 percent."
The American Legion posts are organized into 55 departments – one for each state, as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, France, Mexico and the Philippines. In the mid-1980s, the American Legion boasted 3.1 million members nationally, but that number has dropped to 2.2 million.
Gough said there have always been membership ebbs and flows in the legion's 98-year history, but there aren't as many younger vets to take the reins from an aging membership base.
"It's not that the young aren't joining – last year a quarter-million Iraq and Afghanistan vets joined," Gough said. "There's just not as many serving, and we're losing our WWII and Korea vets, and even some from Vietnam."
Gough also hopes that as younger vets come to a better realization of the importance of the legion and its benefits, more of them will become active in the organization.
"The GI Bill was written by a legion commander, and the Veteran's Administration was started by the legion," Gough said. "It's alarming to think about what it would be like for veterans if we didn't exist."
Gough told the Rock Falls group that a key to recruiting members is spreading awareness that political influence on veterans issues is tied to numbers. Legion staff advocates for veterans in the nation's capital every day of the year. The larger the organization is, the more politicians need its support.
The legion is also keeping a watchful eye on efforts to rewrite the nation's gun laws.
"The commanders have asked the president to be careful because they are making it tougher for returning vets to buy weapons," Gough said. "Medical certification is needed, and it seems they are lumping all of them into the same extreme category."
The vice commander said the legion takes a nonpartisan political stance and doesn't support candidates, but its clout remains strong today. He didn't mince words when he addressed some important issues, particularly the ongoing problems at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
"[United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert] McDonald isn't doing a good job," Gough said. "He promised to fix the VA hospitals, and it just keeps getting worse."
Gough said the legions need to be working for changes in the nation's military benefits system. While some are calling for the VA to be dismantled, Gough said legion leadership believes the system is still worth saving. One area of emphasis is to give reservists the same access to assistance as active-duty military personnel.
Historically, the Rock Falls post has done well with membership, but local leaders find it increasingly challenging to keep the numbers strong.
"Last year we hit 100 percent on membership, but we have 286 members now, and we'll probably be down about 10 percent this year," Rock Falls Commander Don Koehler said.
Legion leaders are also struggling to pack the posts and keep some money coming in.
"When I first joined 21 years ago, we had dances every Saturday night and the place was always full, but this year we had 20 people at our Halloween party," Koehler said.
Legion activities are open to the public, and Koehler said members are getting more creative in their planning efforts.
"We have several members who play musical instruments, so they have been getting together to play on Thursday nights," Koehler said. "It's something informal, and a little bit different."
Other musicians can jump in if jam sessions are their thing. Video gambling machines were brought into the hall at 712 Fourth Ave., but numbers are gradually slipping for bingo on Fridays and Wednesdays. Despite their best efforts, Koehler said the post needs an infusion of youth.
"We're trying to entice the National Guard and get some young people in here," Koehler said. "We probably have a dozen guys with 55 to 60 years in here, and the old people are running out of gas."
VISIT POST 902
The Rock Falls American Legion Post 902 meets at 7 p.m. on the first Monday of each month at the legion hall, 712 Fourth Ave. Call Commander Don Koehler at 815-626-3862, or stop by the hall for membership information. Legion social activities, such as dances, bingo, and holiday events, are open to the public. Post hours are updated on its Facebook page.