As they celebrate their centennial, Legionnaires in Colorado Springs hope ideas from their organization’s origins can lead them into the future.
Founded in the wake of World War I, the American Legion’s ranks were swollen by returning troops from World War II. But even as battles continued, the organization saw diminishing membership as the newest veterans turned away from veterans’ groups.
El Paso County Commissioner Stan VanderWerf, an Iraq war veteran and one of the newest members of American Legion Post 5 downtown, told a crowd gathered for the organization’s birthday Friday that a renewed focus on helping people is the key to growth.
“It is time to rededicate ourselves to the reason for the American Legion,” he said.
The Legion was founded during meetings in Paris that concluded on March 17, 1919, with a mission of community service aimed at helping veterans overcome hardship and showing children why men and women are willing to fight for the country.
Through the Roaring ’20s and beyond, though, the Legion and other veterans organizations were better known as clubs where veterans swapped war stories over beer.
“It’s one of those things the American Legion is known for — liquid refreshment,” Post 5 member Keith LaMee said as he unveiled a commemorative bottle of bourbon at the birthday party.
But leaders say the post-9/11 set of veterans wants more than a stiff drink. It’s a generation of volunteers who enlisted to help their country, said Dean Noechel, the Legion’s senior vice commander for Colorado.
“We have a lot of veterans who want to give back to the community,” Noechel said.
To appeal to that group, Noechel said, the Legion is grabbing opportunities to help in the community. From playing a prominent role in helping homeless veterans to putting on food and toy drives for impoverished families, posts around the Pikes Peak region are more active than ever in community service work.
They have also started endorsing healthy activities such as fun runs and enticing younger members with motorcycle rides and car shows.
It’s starting to turn the tide, Noechel said. The Legion stood at 2 million members last year, including a younger crowd that is joining ranks with the organization’s graying membership.
“It’s tough, but we are slowly getting our way there,” he said.
The Legion’s community service work has revolutionized the world for veterans. The group lobbied for the GI Bill and was instrumental in establishing the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.
It’s key work these days includes helping 181,000 veterans file disability claims every year.
The downtown Legion post is the oldest in the Pikes Peak region, founded by members of the Colorado National Guard’s Battery C, which went to France from Colorado Springs.
In the ’20s, it was a place where young veterans could lean on each other while flouting the nation’s prohibition laws over a few pints. But after a revival in the 1950s, the post’s building on Platte Avenue at Cascade Avenue became an aging relic, with dark imitation wood paneling and carpets to match.
Now its members are working to brighten the place with an extensive remodel to make it better fit the planned youth movement.
The Legion isn’t alone in the fight for young adherents. From mainstream churches to community clubs like the Elks and Eagles, rosters have shrunk amid a generation that isn’t inclined to be “joiners.”
Mike Barger, who heads the Legion district that includes El Paso, Teller and Fremont counties, said another factor keeping young veterans away is the pounding pace of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With multiple deployments under their belts, young veterans have wanted to steer clear of military-affiliated groups when they finally hang up their uniforms.
But after 17 years of conflict, that attitude is also changing.
“A few months or a few years later, they find they miss the camaraderie,” Barger said.
And part of that camaraderie comes with amenities those World War I troops would appreciate. The Legion isn’t giving away its bar stools anytime soon.
LaMee said something special happens when veterans raise a glass together and talk about their experiences.
“It helps them decompress and get those demons out,” he said.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240 Twitter: @xroederx