The movement to register voters at VA health-care facilities last year triggered an unexpected - but critical - wave of volunteerism. More than 1,100 new participants in the VA Volunteer Services program stepped up to help nearly 12,000 veterans nationwide register and cast ballots in the November general election.
"We could not have done this without help from volunteers," said Laura B. Balun, director of VA's Volunteer Service Office. "We recruited new volunteers. We also had many who said, 'I'm here every day, and I'd be glad to assist with this - give me another assignment."
Thousands of those volunteers are members of The American Legion, American Legion Auxiliary and Sons of The American Legion. Balun spoke to a group of them Sunday during the 49th American Legion Washington Conference at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Balun said the VAVS program depends on American Legion participation. "The Legion has been a staunch supporter, always. But we've really seen an increase in the past few years, especially for non-traditional activities."
The American Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division tracks VA volunteer hours annually performed by members. In 2008, the Legion delivered 909,480 hours of volunteer work, which is slightly up from 2007. However, those hours of volunteer service were performed by 397 fewer certified volunteers. "We're getting more done with fewer people," said Jacob Gadd, assistant director of the VA&R division in Washington. "But the average age is 75."
Kelton Sweet, Department of Florida VA&R chairman, said difficult economic times could make volunteer recruitment an even bigger challenge in 2009. "Younger veterans are working or looking for work," said Sweet, who encouraged VAVS and The American Legion to draw on newly retired veterans to help bring the average volunteer age down. "That's where we need to look. Going after the younger guys is great. But getting volunteers from the younger generation is going to be difficult."
Balun said that many younger people caught in the economic downturn can benefit from the VAVS experience while looking for paid employment. "They are looking for things to put on their resumes," she said. "It gives you an opportunity to try out different types of occupations."
"Another source that sometimes gets overlooked are those who participate in the Boys and Girls State programs," said Jack Ford, Alternate National Executive Committeeman from Nevada.
Gadd listed several 2009 American Legion goals to recruit volunteers and enhance the VAVS program, including an online registration process to reduce the time it takes to certify volunteers and get them into action, increased promotion using American Legion national media, creation of a volunteerism tool kit, and a goal of no fewer than 22 new volunteers per American Legion department.
The group also heard from American Legion Heroes to Hometowns Coordinator Andrew Tramontana, who said numerous volunteer opportunities  are available throughout the nation for Legionnaires to help combat-disabled veterans readjust after they return home.