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Shrinking membership puts Bridgeville Post 54 in peril

| Wednesday, March 19, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Members of Bridgeville American Legion Post 54 have been regulars at community events, including the annual Memorial Day Parade.

American Legion Post 54 leaders in Bridgeville will try to bolster support for the group's declining membership with a fundraiser on March 22.

In its heyday — not long after World War II ended in 1945 — the post boasted a membership of about 2,000. Today, 214 veterans remain, meeting at the group's building at 325 Station St.

“We need enough to keep the lights on,” said Rick Burke, 58, Legion historian and acting adjutant who helped organize the fundraiser.

Decreasing membership limits operating funds, Burke said. Of each $26 annual fee from members, $3.50 remains at the local level. The rest goes to the national organization.

He said members also are trying to develop ideas to broaden the membership base, such as creating a “Sons of the Legion” group that would allow the sons or grandsons of veterans to join the local post. Burke, who also plans additional fund-raisers, pressed to get support from the area's political leaders.

“Mayor DeBlasio is a blessing,” Burke said, and so was Capt. Ray Costain at the Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department, who donated the use of the fire hall.

“We put all the wood together, and they were the spark,” Burke said.

Mayor Pat DeBlasio said he was eager to help.

“The freedom we enjoy today is the direct result of what the veterans did — not just 100 years ago, but 10 years ago,” he said.

“The people who went and sacrificed should be honored,” DeBlasio said. “The Legion is the place where they are welcome. It is where they find a sense of healing and a sense of community.”

The post's membership had been self-sustaining for decades. Then, fundraising wasn't necessary.

Today's younger veterans, Burke said, are “war weary” after multiple tours of duty.

“Maybe later on, they'll come on board,” said Burke, who has been with the Legion for 35 years.

The Bridgeville resident served as a non-commissioned officer, a sergeant, in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. The thought of the Legion closing, forcing the membership to disband, is something he and some others can't accept. Closing would mean turning the building on Station Street over to the national organization to be sold.

“This isn't just a place to meet and hang out,” Burke said. “It's not a dirty, smoky bar.”

There are benefits in belonging — scholarships for members' children, insurance and ongoing news of issues that affects veterans.

And there are duties, such as marching in Bridgeville's Memorial Day Parade with colleagues from that community, South Fayette and Collier; performing flag ceremonies; visiting nursing homes; and placing thousands of flags on veterans' graves in three cemeteries in May. The veterans aren't paid for their work.

Occasionally, someone at the post will hear from a family whose loved one's grave was missed, Burke said.

“Not one has come to pick up a free flag,” he said. “We'll attempt to find that person next year, not for the family, but to honor the veteran who's in the ground.”

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5803 or ddreeland@tribweb.com.

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