American Legion offers veterans support and fellowship
By Tyler Stocks
The Daily Reflector
Thursday, March 8, 2018
Since 1919, the American Legion has offered wartime veterans support, advice and opportunities for community service and fellowship
The nonprofit organization has 2 million members nationwide, wields considerable political clout and sponsors a variety of local programs — including American Legion baseball teams, annual oratorical contests and local veterans events.
But despite its long history and ongoing list of accomplishments, the Legion is facing declining membership nationally. The latest generation of soldiers simply is not joining its ranks.
In Wilson, membership of Post 13 has dropped so much that Legionnaires last week sold their post headquarters and are relocating to a smaller space.
And in Greenville, Post 39 also is struggling to remain relevant and keep its numbers up.
Post commander Lee Allen, 59, a retired Army JAG Corps officer, said the organization offers veterans valuable information about getting benefits they have earned while creating opportunities for them to serve each other and the community. Still, he said, not everyone is taking advantage of the chance for membership.
“The numbers are down. In the ’60s and ’70s there were 500-600 members at this post,” Allen said. “Today that number hovers just above 290. We're hoping to get a little over 300 this year.”
And the problem is not finding people who are eligible to join, he said.
“There are more eligible members today than ever before, yet our numbers are going down,” Allen said. “I think it's a function of the way we live in 2018 and how busy we are. We try to show them through pamphlets that we do good for the community and hope they'll come out.”
For Legion member Charles Beddard, 62, the organization affords him the opportunity to help fellow veterans get the benefits they've earned.
Beddard, a disabled combat veteran who served in Vietnam, has been a member of Post 39 for almost six years and serves as the post's veteran services officer.
“This post gives me a chance to give back to my veterans,” Beddard said. “My father served in the Army and I served. I'm always trying to help somebody else out. This is my way of doing it. I do claims for veterans, try to help the homeless get places to go. If it's a way to give back, I always try to.”
Beddard said many veterans fail to recognize that American Legion posts offer veterans strength in numbers.
“Veterans nowadays don't realize that if they don’t have enough people to help them complain, the congressman just looks at them and just goes on,” Beddard said. “If we need something passed, we say, 'look, the American Legion Post 39 wants this passed,' he listens because there's enough people.”
The Legion also helps returning veterans bridge that gap between life in the service and civilian life, particularly those returning from a war zone.
“Veterans coming home, don't know anything. They get out of the service after coming home from war and nobody tells them anything,” he said. “That's what the Legion is here for. To help tell people what they can get and how we can help them. People need to know there's somebody here to help them.”
Allen said that being a part of the Legion allows ex-military to continue to serve their community, state and nation.
This often involves lobbying members of Congress to act on important legislation, he said.
“We lobby Congress and the president on things that are of importance, such as national security and funding VA benefits for all veterans,” Allen said. “Right now there is a hierarchy of who gets benefits, and one of the things the Legion is doing is seeing that all veterans have access to health benefits.
“We also have pushed for a full accounting of all prisoners of war and those missing in action from all war conflicts,” he said. “We haven't forgotten about those didn’t come home.”
The Legion has a more social side as well, Allen said.
Members of Post 39 meet once a month and spend time with one another while also planning recreational activities like motorcycle rides, baseball games and group outings.
Post 39 sponsors a youth baseball team, a state oratorical contest and actively participates in Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies.
And many do not know that Post 39 co-sponsors the Pitt County American Legion Agricultural Fair, Allen said. Members from Post 39, along with Post 151 in Farmville and Post 289 in Ayden operate and manage the fair, a nonprofit organization.
Allen said that planning events and having social recreation helps with recruiting and retention efforts. The post also tries to spread the word that membership is flexible.
“You can join the American Legion and never come to a meeting. You can come to a meeting and do that only, or you can come and get involved,” Allen said.
The Legion is working to reach out to current active-duty service members and reservists returning from war.
“While we have a local guard and reserve presence, when you catch those folks when they're coming back, they want to take the uniform off, hug and kiss the spouse and kids and think about getting on with their lives and the things they miss,” Allen said. “A lot of times, joining the American Legion is not high on their priority list.”
That is something Allen hopes will change over time.
“We're hopeful that as time goes by and as these folks get back, sort of establish themselves and can take a deep breath, that maybe they will want to come and join us and continue to serve,” Allen said. “We meet once a month. We have a catered meal that's quite good. We have fellowship.
“While we want people to get involved, we have folks who just come to the meetings and that's fine,” he said. “There's something here for everybody.”
Contact Tyler Stocks at firstname.lastname@example.org and 252-329-9566