American Legion posts look for new members
In the foyer of the American Legion Post in McKeesport there is an honor roll with the names of deceased members of the club.
It was one of the first things members of Burt Foster American Legion Post 361 would see when they entered the hall along Market Street.
But no longer.
The post, which once had thousands of members, closed its door on Jan. 25, citing dwindling membership and overhead costs as reasons.
“The roof is leaking badly and we had frozen pipes in the cellar,” said Mark Johnson, a post officer. With an estimated repair cost of $15,000 to $20,000 for the building problems and heating bills in the neighborhood of $1,200, Johnson said the club had to close, adding, “You can't heat a building on 66 members.”
It's a sad state of affairs for the post, which opened in the 1920s and through the decades had men and women who had served during all the United States military conflicts from World War I to the Gulf War era.
The significance of the closure has not been lost on members of the Port Vue American Legion Post 447.
The post has already welcomed members from the defunct McKeesport post and is hoping to attract more members, especially younger ones.
The Port Vue post has historically been very active with veteran affairs and in the community. Members participate in local parades, host an annual Flag Day flag retirement ceremony, and sponsor a number of events that raise funds for veterans programs.
Mark Suckfiel, sergeant-at-arms for the Port Vue post, said it's a shame to see McKeesport and others close.
“I don't want to see us go that way,” said Suckfiel, who wants the public to start seeing American Legion in a new light. The local post “isn't just a place to go for cheap drinks. It should be the epicenter of the community and the place where veterans in the community can go for help.”
Suckfiel, 34, is a veteran of the Gulf War. “When I got out of the Army, it was a foregone conclusion that I was joining the VFW,” he said. His father Bob is an adjutant for the post and has long been an active member.
Mark said he knows he's in a minority for veterans in his age group.
Most men and women are busy with families and careers when they get out of the service and are not thinking about their veteran status, said Suckfiel, who contends they should be.
“This is a support system,” he said of the post. The legion advocates on behalf of veterans in Washington, which can help them now and in the future.
In the 1970s, the Port Vue post had more than 500 members but was down to around 200 last year. World War II veterans once made up the bulk of the membership but there are now just 19. The post's 93 Vietnam-era vets comprise the majority of the membership now. The post has 23 Gulf War-era veterans.
Johnson, 57, and a Vietnam veteran, said he thinks the demise of the McKeesport post was linked to its graying membership and what he believes was a perceived lack of activities interesting to young adults. “The young people wouldn't join.”
Suckfiel said he doesn't want the Port Vue post to be perceived of as a place where oldtimers go to trade war stories. He said the organization is adding events that appeal more to the younger set.
The post is planning to host a 1980s dance on April 26 and a Nintendo tournament on May 13. Members are rebuilding the horseshoe pits and planning a dinner series for veterans based on the period of time they were in the service.
At the national level, the legion has about 2.3 million members.
American Legion spokesman John Raughter said that's down from the organization's all-time high of 3 million members but significantly better than its lowest point of 600,000. The American Legion began with about 800,000 members after World War I.
The greatest growth in members is coming from the Vietnam generation, said Raughter, adding there is great potential for growth in members from people who served during the Gulf War-era. That era is the longest membership eligibility period for the legion, said Raughter, noting it began in August 1990 and continues through today. Any veteran who served during that 24-year span is eligible to join. Veterans, or active military members, must have served during a designated period of national conflict to join but actual boots-on-ground combat duty is not a requirement.
There are several programs affiliated with the legion, such as the Sons of the American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary that expand membership requirements to children, grandchildren and spouses of veterans.
Though a number of local posts have closed their doors, Raughter said not all are struggling.
“There are 3,000 more American Legion posts (in the country) than there are Starbucks,” he said.
In McKeesport, Johnson said the post is reaching out to neighboring communities about taking on some of its artifacts and performing some of the post's duties, such as tending to veterans graves in the McKeesport and Versailles Cemetery.
The McKeesport Regional History and Heritage Center is adding some of the post's artifacts to its collection, according to Johnson, but questions linger about what to do with some items, including the honor roll.
Suckfiel said the Port Vue post will continue its efforts to bring new and younger members into the organization. “They're not getting any younger,” he said of the existing membership. “We need to pick up the torch.”
Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1966, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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