Even as the American Legion’s work continues, it can boast of at least one mission accomplished: providing support for America’s service members and the communities where they live.
These days, though, as the Legion celebrates its centennial, the organization is on another mission, one that could very well determine whether it someday celebrates a bicentennial: attracting the next generation of Legion members.
The American Legion’s four core pillars – promoting veterans affairs and rehabilitation, national defense, Americanism and children and youth – were born in aftermath of World War I and continue today, in a world still engaged in conflict.
The Legion is a service organization that supports veterans and local charitable organizations, provides honor guards for veterans funerals, sponsors leadership opportunities for young boys through its Premier Boys State program, operates youth sports programs, and performs ceremonies for Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Pearl Harbor Day.
Legionnaires also take part in numerous community functions, fundraisers and educational events, among them American flag education and code awareness. Most posts have mailbox-like drop-off boxes for retired flags; Morrison Post 328 installed a new one Monday in front of its hall.
The Legion got its start when returning World War I veterans who wished to continue the camaraderie and relationships that they found during wartime built the foundation of the Legion from February to September 1919, when it became federally chartered.
Dixon Post 12 is the oldest one in the area, organized months before the Legion was chartered. Most posts numbered less than 500 were organized in 1919. Post 902 in Rock Falls is among the newer ones. It broke off from the Sterling post in 1946.
The Legion was just 8 years old when Lyle Bogott was born. The 92-year-old Dixon resident, a retired teacher and coach, served in Germany in the later days of World War II, but didn’t join the Legion until about 10 years ago.
He said he’s enjoyed the friendship, good meals and help the Legion provides.
“I just heard a lot of good things about it,” he said. “I thought I would try it. I liked it. [I like] mostly just being able to come down, have a good old chat and have a beer.”
Raymond Nowak, 82, of Sterling enlisted in the Navy fresh from dental college in 1962, just before the Cuban Missile Crisis. The retired dentist was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and moved to Sterling in 1964.
Nowak enjoys the community service and family aspect of being a Legion member.
“I’ve enjoyed the community, and have met a lot of friends at the Legion,” he said. “We just seem to get together and help each other. If anyone has a problem, we try to help them out.
Tom Skrip, 54, of Sterling is one of the younger members of his post. He served in Germany during the late Cold War and worked on missions involving the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which reduced weapons in both the United States and Soviet Union.
Skrip is the post’s Junior Vice Commander, likens his post to a home in his 3 years there.
“Everyone’s been through some sort of basic training, and you’ve grown, basically, with everyone else,” he said. “We all know how we started, and everyone else did their own different things.”
Members have an opportunity to be leaders at the local, district, state and national level. Two locals have served as state commanders: Richard Groharing of Rock Falls in 2011, and Karl Yost of Morrison in 1962.
Most posts have an auxiliary chapter for women and a sons chapter for descendants of veterans; they have the same missions as the primary organization and do similar work. Some members are part of both, having also served themselves.
Also observing 100 years is the 40&8, which started as a national honor society of the Legion, and now is the national honor society of all American veterans; it no longer has an affiliation with the Legion.
Richard Longfellow, 72, of Dixon wears many hats at Post 12. He was post commander from 1993-94, and is judge advocate, Boys State coordinator and Chef de Gare – the man in charge – of the Lee County 40&8.
Retired from Dixon High School, Longfellow spends plenty of time vacationing on cruises and visits, and visits many posts, including those in the Virgin Islands and Guam.
There were 560 members in 1993, but that number has been whittled down to 250 today. Only a handful of World War II veterans remain, and many veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars have died in recent years.
Longfellow, who served in Germany during the Vietnam War era, is approaching 50 years as a Legion member. He’s seen 40&8 organizations in Whiteside and Ogle counties turn in their charters during that time, and has noticed a struggle to get younger members aboard.
“With most organizations, younger people don’t have a tendency to join,” Longfellow said. “With World War I and World War II, there was a great influx; not so much after Korea, Vietnam and currently.”
Sustaining its future has been a recent primary goal of the Legion.
Pat Barney, 68, of Dixon is Post 12’s historian. Her husband, Mike, 70, is a past post and district commander. She is part of both the Legion and its auxiliary, and has seen membership in both organizations dip in recent years.
Most posts have a bar, where members can sit, chat and have drinks. Barney said that her post is trying to do things more family-oriented to increase camaraderie.
“We really need to get more younger people involved, people coming back now,” she said. “The Legion Auxiliary is getting older and older, and we’re trying to get more younger women involved.”
As it stands now, veterans who have served at least 1 day of active duty during certain periods of conflict, or are serving now, are eligible for membership. Nonactive members must have been honorably discharged or were discharged under honorable conditions.
The time frames for Legion membership, as determined by Congress, are: Dec. 7, 1941 to Dec. 31, 1946 for World War II; June 25, 1950 and Jan. 31, 1955 for the Korean War; Feb. 28, 1961 to May 7, 1975 for the Vietnam War; Aug. 24, 1982 to July 31, 1984 for conflicts in Lebanon and Grenada; Dec. 20, 1989 to Jan. 31, 1990 for Operation Just Cause in Panama; and any conflict after Aug. 2, 1990.
With membership dwindling, and the Legion seeing a need to recognize veterans who served during unrecognized conflicts, Congress is considering a bill that would expand the Legion’s reach.
Senate Bill 504, the bipartisan Let Everyone Get Involved in Opportunities for National Service Act (the LEGION Act), was introduced Feb. 14 in the U.S. Senate, and sits in discussion in the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship as of June 28.
The bill would expand membership eligibility to honorably discharged veterans who have served in unrecognized times of war since World War II.
“Nearly 1,600 brave American men and women were killed or wounded since World War II, while defending our nation during times not officially recognized as periods of war by the U.S. government,” American Legion National Commander Brett P. Reistad said. “These veterans are unable to receive some of the benefits and recognition available to their counterparts who served during official wartime periods.
Dwight Moss, 76, of Dixon, who is Post 12’s adjutant, points out when recruiting new members that VA benefits are put together by the Legion. It’s more than just medical, additional benefits range from automotive, lodging, computer and appliances.
Still, he sees the struggle continue to invite new members.
“It takes time to raise a family now,” he said, “and it takes two incomes instead of just one. If one’s working, the other is taking their kids to games, workouts, things like that because kids are involved all over the place.”
The Legion continues to ask Congress for better funding to treat wartime illnesses such as agent orange poisoning and post traumatic stress disorder, Moss said.
“The larger the membership, the stronger your voice is,” Longfellow added. “You may have things now that may not be there in the future.”
JOIN THE LEGION
Go to legion.org or contact the following local chapters for membership qualifications to join posts.
Amboy: Poths-Lavelle Post 453, P.O. Box 112, 815-973-4454
Ashton: Post 345, 704 N. First St.
Compton: Brooklyn Post 657, 755 state Route 251, 815-497-3841
Dixon: Post 12, 1120 W. First St., 815-284-2003
Erie: Denton-Schreiner Post 582, 92 Albany St.
Forreston: Post 308, 204 S. First St., 815-990-1339
Franklin Grove: Altenberg Post 497, 139 N. Elm St., 815-238-3966
Fulton: Post 402, 707 10th Avenue
Lanark: Crouse-Engles Post 357, 108 S. Broad St.
Leaf River: Jerry Wickman Post 1148, 705 Main St., 815-540-3549
Milledgeville: Baughman-Diehl Post 553, 405 Meyer Ave., 815-718-4140
Morrison: Post 328, 306 E. Main St.
Mount Carroll: Post 67, P.O. Box 220, 815-990-1533
Mount Morris: Post 143, P.O. Box 12, 815-734-1338
Oregon: Post 97, P.O. Box 597, 815-494-4818
Paw Paw: Smith-Reynolds Post 511, 362 Chicago Road
Polo: Patrick Fegan Post 83, 102 E. Mason St.
Prophetstown: Post 522, 215 Washington St., 815-535-1352
Rock Falls: Post 902, 712 Fourth Ave., 815-626-3862
Shannon: Boyle-Hoy Post 379, 22 E. Market St.
Sterling: Post 296, 601 First Ave., 815-625-1212
Tampico: Post 574, 202 W. Second St.
Walnut: Post 179, 420 E. North St.