There’s no question that in order for the Legion to grow – and remain relevant for generations to come – efforts need to be made to reach out to the young men and women now returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan. But while doing that, we cannot forget those who came before them: the veterans who served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Panama and Grenada, and in the first Gulf War. There needs to be a balance.
American Legion Post 162 in Lowville, N.Y., has managed to strike that balance – with amazing results. Thanks to increasing its presence in the community, as well as targeting active-duty military at nearby Fort Drum, membership is at its highest in 80 years, currently sitting at 516.
It started when some older members approached Lee Hinkleman, 58, about taking on a leadership role in the post. "I told them I would, but that there were going to be some changes," said Hinkleman, now the post commander. "They said they wanted some changes."
Eighteen months ago, the post developed a three-year business plan to make those changes. Some of the changes were cosmetic, including putting up three large-screen TVs in the post and keeping them tuned to sports or the weather. It was a small change, but Hinkleman said a needed one. "This creates a lively environment for someone just walking into our Legion," he said. "I once went into a Legion post that looked like they were having a garage sale. The room was cluttered and dusty, the TV was on an old ‘Bonanza’ show, and a small group was eating in the corner. This is the kind of (post) that will eventually die."
The post added high-speed wireless Internet access, built an outdoor deck with wheelchair access, created a website and established regular post hours. A House Committee – comprised of members ages 30 and younger – has brought what Hinkleman calls a "youth perspective" to the future vision of the post. "We are nurturing them along to become the leaders of tomorrow," he said. "But to do this, you must give them the freedom of decision."
The post uses social media to publicize its events and has started a Legion Riders chapter, which has grown to 26 members. And Post 162 has done something as simple as establishing, and maintaining, consistent business hours. "If a member knows you are open, they will come," Hinkleman said. "If they are not sure, they will go somewhere else. This was one of the first changes we made, and it was a key element of success on the business side."
The change has resulted in post revenues increasing by 38 percent, providing the post with more funds to conduct Legion and community programs. During Lowville’s Cream Cheese Festival in September, the post purchased an 8-feet-by-12-feet building and painted it with patriotic colors. The building was used to sell food and recruit new members, succeeding on both counts.
"At one time we had 32 volunteers working," Hinkleman said. "We had such a strong group of older and younger veterans turn out. We had people helping from the Auxiliary and the Sons (of The American Legion). All of them get along so well together, and that’s how we’re taking this to the next level."
Hinkleman requires all of his officers to carry Legion membership applications with them. "There is a lack of knowledge out there about The American Legion and what it does," Hinkleman said. "And a lot of times, veterans just aren’t asked. That’s what they say when you ask them why they’re not a member: ‘No one ever asked me.’ You’ve got to ask them to join, and tell them what we’re doing. Then, they join."
And while a push for younger veterans has occurred, Hinkleman said that push wouldn’t be possible without the post’s older members.
"It is the generations before us that have allowed us to have the Legion that we have," he said. "So their input is equally critical to our survival."
Post 162 is a blueprint for growing a post’s membership and visibility. The post came up with a realistic plan, got buy-in from the membership and then dedicated itself to following the plan – a plan that’s
Membership has grown by 33 percent in 18 months. Thanks to some physical changes to the post, attendance is up and business is thriving – allowing the post to fund more programs. The American Legion Riders have been added to the post’s Legion family – a family that successfully works together on post and community projects, such as the recent festival. This kind of exposure within the community is providing an insight into what The American Legion does that wasn’t there before.
And, perhaps just as important, younger members helped develop and are implementing a plan for the future, and being trained to be future Legion leaders. It’s not just about what the post can do now, but what it can do years down the road.
I’d call that a success.