A March 16 New York Times article described an American Legion post near Chicago that is struggling to attract young members. The article used that post as an example to advance a broader theory about the nation's largest veterans service organization. The headline read: "An Aging American Legion Fights for Relevancy." (see below for National Commander James E. Koutz' letter to the New York Times that published March 25)
A similar article warning of The American Legion's imminent demise appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 1971, about 20 years before the organization reached an all-time high in membership.
The American Legion is always fighting to remain relevant to the veterans, troops, families and communities it serves. For nearly a century, The American Legion has been winning that fight. Just as the post near Chicago looks for new ways to attract young members, the Legion is constantly recalibrating services and programs at every level – from Post 56 in Cheriton, Va., which increased membership tenfold over the last six years by reinventing its role in the community, to American Legion innovations in mobile technology that help veterans understand the VA claims process and how to get help.
The American Legion remains by far the nation's largest veterans service organization, with 2.4 million members and more than 13,800 community posts, because its relevance is woven into the fabric of our nation. As the New York Times article mentioned near the ending, a post in rural Burlington Junction, Mo., was recently in peril because a wall collapsed, rendering the post building unusable. "Residents ... were unwilling to let their local post die," the article explained. "...within weeks of the building's collapse, residents had rallied together and raised $100,000 to build a new community center... which will serve as a new home to the Legion post."
Approximately 250,000 veterans a year join The American Legion for the first time. The percentage of eligible veterans who have become members, in fact, is trending upward and stands at over 14.5 percent nationally. Comparatively, it was 11.1 percent in 1970 when the pool of eligible Legionnaires was about 7.5 million greater.
Membership is important to the organization, to be sure. Membership, however, is not a requirement to receive services from The American Legion. You don't have to be a member to get assistance from a service officer, participate in a job fair or even receive cash grants from the Legion's Temporary Financial Assistance program which aids struggling military and veteran families with children at home. The number of members in a particular post does not tell the whole story, nor is it a reliable barometer of relevancy.
The organization's relevancy can be found in the offices of nearly 3,000 American Legion service officers who are handling approximately 1 million VA benefits claims a year for veterans, free of charge. As the Department of Veterans Affairs struggles to reverse a growing backlog of undecided claims, the White House and the Veterans Benefits Administration have turned to The American Legion and its expertise for solutions. The Legion is now proactively working with VBA to improve claims processing performance at the regional office level.
The American Legion produced, sponsored and hosted nearly 1,200 veteran job fairs in 2012 alone, including no fewer than 940 at local Legion posts. These events were instrumental in reducing U.S. veteran unemployment by more than two percentage points last year.
New American Legion posts are springing up on college campuses throughout the nation because student veterans have discovered that online networks and profit-driven groups cannot help them in the ways The American Legion does. The Legion, which gave the nation the GI Bill near the end of World War II, has worked closely with Congress to strengthen it, decade after decade, including the Post 9/11 GI Bill, which former U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas said "...wouldn't have happened without The American Legion."
When The American Legion discovered that active-duty troops recovering from wounds and illnesses in military hospitals and transition units lacked comfort items and recreational experiences to help them pass the time, Operation Comfort Warriors was born. Since 2007, Legionnaires have raised millions of dollars to buy rehabilitation equipment, television sets, clothing, exercise gear, passes to theme parks and much more for these men and women of our armed forces at more than 30 U.S. military facilities worldwide.
On Capitol Hill, The American Legion has led the charge to convert military experience into training credits for a variety of occupations that require licenses and certification. These efforts have led to veteran-friendly policy changes for federal employment, new procedures for the Department of Defense, and they are driving adoption in the private sector.
The American Legion annually awards millions of dollars in scholarships at every level, from the Legacy Scholarship Fund that provides college educations for those who lost parents on active military duty after Sept. 11, 2001, to more than 14,000 other college awards provided through local posts. The American Legion offers healthy and educational programs for thousands of young people a year through American Legion Baseball, Boy Scouts, Boys State, oratorical competitions and more.
When tornados rip through Alabama or Missouri, when a super-storm strikes the East Coast or a hurricane devastates the Gulf Coast, The American Legion's National Emergency Fund and local post volunteers deliver relief faster and more efficiently than any government agency or service organization. These relief efforts are routinely calculated in the millions of dollars, and millions of volunteer hours, per disaster.
Every year, The American Legion's Child Welfare Foundation awards approximately $700,000 in grants to organizations that help the most vulnerable and at-risk children of our country.
American Legion assistance at VA health-care facilities were valued at over $20.1 million in 2012, according to VA Volunteer Services.
Most of these facts about The American Legion's relevancy are under-stated. American Legion posts and members conduct their services and advocacy without fanfare or big advertising budgets. Media coverage of their efforts is too infrequent. Legionnaires don't always write down what they do. They just do it.
Indeed, it is a reality that the World War II generation is passing, as the World War I generation did. It is also a reality that those who served during the Vietnam War now represent the largest, and growing, slice of The American Legion membership pie. These veterans, and those who served in later war eras, are welcoming the Post 9/11 generation of veterans and their families by providing relevant, valuable services, regardless of whether they wish to join The American Legion just now, later in their lives, or not at all.
The American Heritage Dictionary of The English Language defines the term "relevant" this way: "Having a bearing on, or connection with, the matter at hand."
Veterans, troops, their families and communities have always been the matter at hand for The American Legion. That is The American Legion is committed, from local posts to national headquarters, to continue fighting for relevancy.
National Commander James Koutz' letter to the New York Times
As national commander of the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans' service organization, I am proud to admit that we are "fighting to remain relevant." Indeed, we are fighting to make a positive difference in the lives of our nation's active-duty troops, Reserve and Guard forces, and 23 million veterans and their families.
Moreover, like all organizations and businesses that have had a positive impact on people's lives, we have to change with the times if we are to remain relevant. Our priorities are ensuring a strong national defense, the wholesome development of our youth, jobs and education for those who have served in the armed forces, and compassionate care for those who returned from war with serious challenges and their families. We also lobby on behalf of our active-duty troops and their families.
For nearly 100 years we have demonstrated our relevance by remembering those who served so that America will never forget what it owes to them and their loved ones.
JAMES E. KOUTZ