It is heartwarming to hear the number of people, children included, who will go up to an elderly person wearing a military cap of some kind and say, “Thank you for your service.”
I hear it myself when I am wearing something displaying the Sons of the American Legion logo. When that happens, I explain to them it was my father who served in World War II and the Korean War. I am serving his memory.
There is hope for America when one considers how we treat those who sacrificed for our freedom. But the future may not be as bright as we patriots are wont to think.
Veteran service organizations — the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and AMVETS being among the largest — are facing many of the same challenges as other religious, charitable and community organizations face. In a word: Volunteers.
I am most familiar with the American Legion, privileged to serve as a Sons officer at multiple levels. Our local posts are struggling to maintain membership as veterans age. Even we Sons, mostly descendants of World War II veterans, have passed into retirement age. Somebody must do the work, and there seems to be fewer and fewer of us.
The same can be said of every other not-for-profit organization where I serve. Something significant, whether demographic or cultural, has negatively affected how otherwise good citizens see their obligation to help their fellows in need. Too busy is the response heard most often. I get that, trying without success to keep up with my kids and their families. Priorities have shifted, and not for the better.
Why does that matter to veterans? Allow me to use the American Legion as a case study.
The legion exists for three purposes, at least as I see it. Yes, it provides a social outlet for its members to associate among friends. My local post offers the best reasonably priced menu of any restaurant in Fort Wayne, and this at the pronouncement of my wife, who tends toward being a food snob.
More important is the legion’s dedication to advancing Americanism among the citizenry through its programs. Scholarships are offered, awards given to heroic first responders, Boys and Girls State conferences teach leadership skills to high school students, schoolchildren are instructed in flag etiquette and foundations are supported to aid child medical costs. This is only a representative list of its service projects.
And there is the mutual support offered to veterans in need. Honor Flight participants in Fort Wayne are served breakfast at the Waynedale post before departure, a breakfast requiring a 3 a.m. muster time for the volunteer kitchen staff. The Buddy Check program encourages vets to stay in contact with other vets who need friendship. Twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day, but this number is falling, no doubt due to the efforts of the buddy checkers. Operation Comfort Warriors provides assistance to wounded service members. Again, these are just examples.
All of these programs are funded primarily internal to the American Legion. We have scads of fundraisers within our posts and the occasional open house for the public. This is not Las Vegas-style gambling. Everyone knows the proceeds go to one of the legion’s designated charities.
And therein lies the existential challenge to the American Legion and its sister veterans service organizations. We all need volunteers to make these fundraisers successful. Volunteers come from members, and new members come from young people who support the mission. One would think this would resonate with current veterans of our modern wars, but it doesn’t.
Is it a generational thing? Is there something about military service today that differs dramatically from that of our fathers? Is patriotism dying a death of a thousand cuts?
It might be a combination of all of these things. “The times they are A-Changin’.”
Somehow, the legion and its sister organizations must figure out how to connect with current service members. This may not be as easy as it sounds. I offer one anecdote to illustrate.
A close friend died and was to receive a military burial. This involved a flag presentation to the family by a local reservist unit. The American Legion sent an honor guard to play “Taps.” When I explained this to his grandchildren at church prior to the funeral, two of them … in uniform … asked me if the legion was “those people in the funny caps.” I can imagine their reaction when they saw me at the gravesite wearing mine.
And this from active service members.
I don’t know the solution to this problem. What I do know is it portends a world unanchored from its heritage, from that which makes America John Winthrop’s “city on a hill.”
Let’s hope those children who thank veterans for their service are the way out of this accelerating descent.
Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Send comments to [email protected].