Richard Gilliam knows how easy it can be for American Legion members to slip away from the organization when they don’t feel engaged with it.
After all, he was one of them.
“They’re probably like me when I joined up; I just went to the district post in Austin (Texas), and I didn’t do anything. After a year or two, I let my membership lapse because it’s like, ‘Hey, what am I paying this for?’” Gilliam said.
A chance meeting with another Legion member brought Gilliam back into the fold.
“Walter Geraghty approached me and signed me up at a gas station on a Sunday morning as I was coming from Fort Sam (Houston), going to church. He stopped me, saw the Air Force emblem on my car, and he grabbed me, ‘Hey, would you like to join up?’ ‘Yes, I would,’” Gilliam recalled.
Gilliam is now the historian at Audie Murphy Post 336 in San Antonio, where Geraghty is the commander. They and 20 other Legion family members in the San Antonio area volunteered their time Feb. 1-3 working the phones in a revitalization effort.
“I feel that it’s a very necessary call to reach out to these people, because if we don’t touch them, they’re not going to get involved. ‘What are they going to do for me?’ And we can do so many different things for them, there’s so many different programs we can give them hands-on help in a number of different areas and we have all this talent out there. We need to grab it and bring it in. That’s an important thing to do,” said Gilliam, who also spreads the call as a volunteer chaplain at Fort Sam Houston.
“What we’re trying to do is give every post an opportunity to use these transfers from (Post) 345 (the Department of Texas holding post) and the (direct mail solicitation lists) to build up the population within their post,” said Al Alford, District 20 commander. “Some of them have shortfalls (in membership), some greater than others, so this is their opportunity to take members who are already paid up and move them into their post and get their numbers up.”
The revitalization efforts were based out of two posts — Fred Brock Post 828 on San Antonio’s east side and Alamo Post 2 on the city’s west side. Alford said the district has been doing it like that, working out of multiple posts, for 10 years.
“Geographically, it’s more convenient for our members,” he said. “We have the largest district, population-wise, in the Department of Texas, and this mitigates a little bit that crowding together of many posts in one location.”
And with the area’s size, it’s more productive for volunteers to man the phones in revitalization efforts than to go door-to-door.
“This is a unique opportunity where you don’t have to go out and beat the streets, if you will, or have to go and try to encourage people to come to an event in order to get them to join your post. Instead, this is a ready source of individuals we can bring in and make them productive at the post level, as opposed to sitting around idle at the headquarters level,” Alford said.
It worked, as the revitalization brought 126 transfers and eight renewals to 18 posts in the San Antonio area.
Among those volunteering their time was Jaime Caratini, temporary director for the American Legion Riders chapter at Gen. Robert McDermott Post 309. The new post is awaiting its charter, but the efforts of Caratini and others will ensure a solid membership foundation.
“We’ve been able to get at least eight people to join our group (today). … We’re looking forward to working with them and helping them however we can,” Caratini said.
“If in eight hours we can get eight members, imagine what we can do in (365) days?”
Geraghty can attest to that. He’s been a Gold Brigade member — signing up 50 new members a year — for 10 straight years, and he’s been the Department of Texas’ top recruiter each of the last nine years.
“Sometimes if you go to a revitalization (like this) … a post that’s thinking about closing, people that are frustrated, they can’t sign up new members; this is like a shot in the arm,” said Geraghty, who’s signed up some 4,000 Legion members in 42 years.
It’s those kinds of numbers — and ensuring the Legion retains those numbers — that can make a big difference in the lives of veterans and their families.
“There’s strength in numbers,” Alford said. “That’s extremely important that we understand that we need those numbers as we represent the veterans, whether it’s at the congressional level or the local level.”
Alford emphasized the importance of retention.
“When you stop and think about the fact that often times, people will come in and join an organization, if the organization does not show interest in them, why would they show interest in the organization? And the retention aspects of doing these types of things, bringing these people in and then doing the follow-up, that’s necessary to make sure they feel like they’re part of the post,” he said.