The American Legion has a lot to celebrate this year. The national service organization for veterans turned 100, along with 173 posts across Massachusetts, and a new law has opened up membership to all veterans rather than just those who served during specific wars.
Yet with the advancing age of most active members — and the changing nature of leisure time — the Legion faces challenges as the organization enters its second century.
Chartered by Congress on Sept. 16, 1919, the Legion has been a second home for veterans of World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and other Cold War conflicts, said Ken Coburn Jr., commander of Abington’s Lewis V. Dorsey Post 112.
“It was initially created in 1919 to support veterans returning from combat and their families,” said Coburn, a senior financial analyst with the Veterans Health Administration. “Back then, the numbers serving were far greater than they are today, and men were looking for a place to go at the end of the day for camaraderie. It’s different today. Younger veterans are busy with their jobs, their families, and their lives. They socialize differently today.”
As the World War II generation passes away, the Legion has seen its worldwide membership fall 20 percent over the past decade — from 2,352,250 members in 2009 to 1,880,768 in 2018.
Abington’s post stands at about 200 members, with only about 16 regularly attending meetings. Coburn, a Navy veteran in his third term as commander, has rotated through various officer positions, as has Dennis Olson, whom Coburn calls “the glue who holds it together.”
Yet Abington’s post celebrated its centennial in September with a well-attended gala complete with a Black Hawk helicopter landing by Army Major Ryan Chandler, an Abington native who lives in Carver.
Eighteen posts have closed in Massachusetts since 2015 because of declining membership and the cost of keeping a post open, but state Commander Jodie Pajak said some posts are showing growth and she is optimistic about the future.
“Overall, the health of Massachusetts’ 295 American Legion posts is good,” said Pajak, a nurse at the Veterans Administration clinic in Springfield. “Of course you have your expected little ponds and dips. But programs are steady, and we’re celebrating the centennial nationally and locally with many events throughout the year that we hope will pique some interest among the younger vets.”
Massachusetts has about 33,100 Legion members, down a few thousand from 10 years ago, Pajak said. She expects numbers will increase with President Trump’s recent signing of the Legion Act, which opens the door for more veterans to become members. The law fills in the gaps between recognized conflicts, extending eligibility to all veterans and active US military personnel who have served since Dec. 7, 1941.
Since its inception following World War I, the Legion has lobbied for veterans benefits and services. In 1943, a commander drafted what would later become the “GI Bill of Rights,” considered the Legion’s greatest legislative achievement.
Many of the centennial celebrations across Massachusetts have showcased the service and community programs the American Legion is known for today, including American Legion Baseball, Girls and Boys State, and providing honor guards for military funerals and events.
“The American Legion has a strong role in communities everywhere,” Pajak said. “Its primary role is to help veterans, advocate for them, and make sure things are getting done for them, but we maintain a solid community presence.”
Pajak said the Wilson Thompson Post 185 in Agawam, to which she belongs, just “adopted” an Agawam National Guard unit and will offer its members support through deployments, provide family assistance where needed, and allow them to use the post for family events.
Gloucester’s Captain Lester S. Wass Post 3 is “doing very well” as it celebrates its centennial, said state Vice Commander Sandra Kee, a former Post 3 commander. About 25 percent of the post’s 200 members actively participate, with others stepping up as needed.
“It’s not unusual for membership to act like the tide,” Kee said. “My post is on a tide coming in, while others are receding. For some, things are rocky — it’s an ebb and flow, but that doesn’t mean you can’t turn it around.”
Abington’s post chaplain, the Rev. Kristy Coburn, who is also a Navy veteran and the wife of Abington Commander Ken Coburn Jr., said she and her husband are concerned about the future of all military organizations, not just the American Legion. At 45 and 52, respectively, they are among the younger active members in Post 112.
“We can’t only rely on our involvement in the town, which is extensive for most posts, to bring in new members,” Kristy Coburn said. “We have to do more. We aren’t sure what millennials are looking for, but we do know they’re not looking for a lounge to go to at the end of the day. They want to be with their families. ”
Pajak said posts are starting to reinvent themselves by finding ways to be more enticing to younger veterans.
“The old stigma of men sitting around the bar smoking at their post is a thing of the past,” Pajak said. “It’s also a chain around our neck that we’re trying to separate ourselves from.”
Only about 35 percent of the Massachusetts posts have a lounge today, Pajak said, and the focus is now on community involvement, supporting veterans, and hosting family events.
One post reinventing itself is the 100-year-old E.P. Clarke Post 107 in Natick. It recently sold its building for just over $1 million, but continues to operate as an active post, said Paul Carew, Natick’s veterans services officer and president of the post’s board of directors.
“We had some internal problems caused by some bad apples that resulted in losing our liquor license,” said Carew, a Marine veteran. “The lounge is what kept the building open, so a number of infractions with local and state licensing authorities made it necessary to close. Our membership was affected, decreasing by about half. But we continue our work in the community, from providing scholarships to sponsoring a baseball team and helping veterans and their families with meetings at a local community service building.”
Recruitment is a struggle for all veterans’ organizations, said Tom McCarthy, Whitman and Abington’s shared veterans services officer and a Marine combat veteran.
“The way to bring in younger veterans is through events that interest them like hosting . . . comedy nights, pig roasts, and car shows,” said McCarthy. “These are the posts that are growing.”
Chris Lessard, a Marine combat veteran who served in Iraq, is a Legion member at Nonantum Post 440 in Newton, but is not active because of commitments at home. The 41-year-old Newton firefighter said there’s definitely a huge generational gap between recent veterans and those of long-ago wars.
“We all have a huge respect for the old-timers,” said Lessard, a husband and father of a young daughter, who has been involved with nonprofits serving military families. “But we want something different socially. The culture and agenda is completely different for younger vets. We recognize there’s a level of comfort at places like the Legion, but we’re just not flocking there.”
Pajak maintains a positive vision for the organization.
“Dynamics are changing — we’re 100 years old — things have to change to grow,” she said. “Family is what the American Legion is all about. My goal is to get the community and families even more involved. . . . It’s up to us, the next generation, to cultivate and grow with the changing times and help safeguard our veterans’ benefits, concerns, and needs.”