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American Legion Celebrates Centennial Veterans’ Group Sees Shrinking Membership

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In this centennial year of the AmericanLegion, Post #3 in Montpelier is planning to host scores of young sailors during Montpelier’s Independence Day celebration on July 3. The sailors are with the submarines USS Montpelier and Vermont. They are put up in local hotels by the Legion, and at noon the post will celebrate them. “We feed them hot dogs, chips, soda, whatever they want. It’s a pretty big deal for them, as well as for us,” post commander Dick Harlow said. Afterward, the sailors and the Legion’s color guard will march in the parade.

However, most of the year, the assembly of vets is smaller and grayer. At 81, Harlow just stepped down this month from his fourth term as post commander. The former manager of Aubuchon Hardware in Montpelier stands ramrod straight, both when he’s holding the U.S. flag in the Legion color guard and when greeting visitors at the legion post. “Any organization today is having trouble getting younger people,” he said. “We’re losing all the old timers. We’re in the Vietnam era really, and the ones over in Afghanistan… they come home and just don’t want to belong to clubs or posts. They’re into their computers. It’s a different lifestyle. That’s why I’ve been commander so many times. No one wants to step up.”

Main Street with an uninviting brown facade and windows high above street level. It’s a private club, and visitors press a buzzer to be let in. On a couple recent weekday afternoons, a handful of members sat at the bar or played poker with 25 cent chips at a nearby table. The walls are bedecked with photos and posters of the history of the post and the Legion, going back to the organization’s founding in March 1919 by members of the American Expeditionary Forces in Paris.

A contemporary history of the Legion’s founding described its mission as a mixture of taking care of veterans of “the World War” and battling the influence of labor organizers, international socialists, conscientious objectors, and other adversaries of what it called “Americanism.” A century on, the Legion maintains its advocacy for and assistance to veterans, but is now more identified with activities for young people than denunciations of foes of Americanism. “We sponsor a baseball team. We sends kids to summer camp. Boys State, Girls State. Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts,” Harlow said.

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The post’s service officer, Ron Wagner, works with older vets to help them get the care they need from the Veterans Administration. Hunched over a can of soda, he speaks in a stuttering, hoarse voice, as he describes his combat experience as a Green Beret paratrooper in the Army’s 10th Special Forces Group, his subsequent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the help he’s received in overcoming alcohol abuse, and how he helps fellow vets. He served around the time of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. While he declined to say on the record where he served and didn’t volunteer details of combat, he commented, “I didn’t see very much as what other people had seen, so I consider myself lucky.”

Nonetheless, Wagner’s military time was enough to give him PTSD, which led to out-of-control drinking. “I used to spend eight hours a day in here, on the wrong side of the bar,” he said, referring to the bar stools. Now he teaches a course at the VA hospital in White River Junction called “Life After Combat,” which he describes as “how to reintegrate into society in a positive way after military service, without the use of drugs or alcohol.” He also takes other vets down to the hospital and helps cut through red tape for them, to get their disabilities recognized and the care they need.

Wagner described the Legion post as a potentially supportive place for vets. “If you go to Charlie O’s or any one of the other drinking establishments, you meet people and you start talking about your experiences—they really don’t know what

you’re talking about,” he said. “In here, you work together for a common goal: to help other veterans. That helps them, and it helps you feel like you’re accomplishing something.”

Asked about how safe the Legion post’s prominent bar is for vets struggling with PTSD and vulnerable to substance abuse, Wagner answered, “Sadly to say, probably not too good.” He advised avoiding any bar while going sober, adding that he stayed away from the post for a year and a half before he felt safe to return. Now he serves on the bar committee, while drinking nothing but Dr. Pepper.

Wagner acknowledges the downturn in membership at the post, but he expects it to turn around. He said he waited 15 to 20 years after leaving the army to join the Legion. “I didn’t want to have anything to do with any type of military organization—I was done.” He sees the same attitude in today’s young vets. “After four or five tours of duty, they’re tired of the military. But the further out from the military they get, they start looking at organizations. And the older they get, they start looking at the VA system.”

If he’s right, aging vets, with their needs for assistance and a desire to help others, may provide the membership boost the Legion needs to keep going through its second century.

Tom Brown is contributing editor of The Bridge. ..... You can contact him at tom@montpelierbridge.com