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Legion seeks boost in numbers, money to stay afloat

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A place of their own: U.S. Navy veteran Dave Bischoff relaxes at American Legion Post 119 in Greenfield, which has been struggling to increase membership. (Tom Russo/Daily Reporter)
A place of their own: U.S. Navy veteran Dave Bischoff relaxes at American Legion Post 119 in Greenfield, which has been struggling to increase membership. (Tom Russo/Daily Reporter)

GREENFIELD — A single chair in front of an empty table with a full place setting sits near the entrance of every American Legion post in the country in honor of a “missing soldier.”

Greenfield Post 119 manager Paul Baker fears the symbol could take a larger meaning for the local post if things don’t change.

“We built this building four years ago, and if we don’t do something soon, we’re going to lose it. It’s as simple as that,” Baker said.

Originally established here in 1919 above the Pickett Hardware Co. at Main and State streets, the legion left its longtime home south of the Hancock County Annex on American Legion Place and built a new facility across town, incurring a $947,000 mortgage in the process.

The new debt burden along with an aging membership roster and a management team that’s in transition have all formed a storm the post is trying to weather, Baker said.

Dick Nolan, a 40-year member who serves as post adjutant in charge of membership, said the post’s numbers have dwindled for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that its members are passing.

“We’ve lost a lot,” Nolan said.

Unfortunately, managers say, the post is not picking up new blood in the face of natural attrition.

A significant portion of the present group served in or prior to Vietnam, and there’s been little influx of Gulf War warriors.

“It’s always been a problem getting the Iraq and Afghanistan guys to join, and I’m not sure why that is,” said Hancock County Veteran Service Officer Robert Workman. “A lot of the Vietnam-era guys didn’t join until 20 years later or so after they served and after they started getting nostalgic about their service.”

Post finance officer Cheryl Bunten, a former Army flight medic, said many of the younger veterans are most likely occupied with family, work and a tough economy with little time or discretionary income to devote to the organization.

On a national level, the American Legion is maintaining its membership numbers, though leadership keeps a close watch on the issue.

“We’re holding fairly steady nationally,” said Corey Owens, assistant director of membership for the American Legion National Headquarters in Indianapolis. “But it’s an ongoing process to retain members and gain more.”

Whether a post is thriving or shrinking usually has more to do with where it’s located, Owens said.

“If you’re in a heavily populated area with a lot of younger veterans, you’ll get younger members. If you’re in a rural area with not a lot of younger guys, you’re going to have a different issue,” he said.

Post 119 currently has 595 members on the roster, and leaders are trying to lure new members with membership incentives and drives and bolster the books with pledge campaigns.

“If we didn’t have this mortgage, we’d be fine,” Baker said. “We’ve just got to get out there and get the numbers.”

Last summer a new management team took over at the 275 Center St. complex, with an eye toward broadening its appeal.

“We’ve spent a lot of time cleaning the place up and making it more family friendly,” he said.

The Great All American Grill occupies a good portion of the post’s public space and is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Owned by Rick Hicks and sister Michelle Cobb, the grill leases space from the post and pays its own utilities while serving the public, post members and catering events at the adjacent banquet hall.

Baker said the hall, which is equipped with a sound system and can seat 300, is available for weddings, banquets and other civic functions and enjoys consistent bookings. The hall is also home to the legion’s weekly bingo games at 5 p.m. every Friday.

But if the post can’t find a way to boost membership and financial numbers to bring itself current on its loan, Baker is concerned a valuable community resource might be lost.

“We help veterans, but we help a lot more than just veterans,” he said.

Last Christmas the post provided full holiday meals to four veterans’ families and 20 non-veterans’ families in the county, Baker said.

The post also has motorized scooters it provides on a temporary basis to area residents who need them, over and above veteran-related support and organizations such as the American Legion Riders motorcycle club, which raises money for veterans’ causes, honor guard and several auxiliary groups.

Additionally, each Memorial Day, the post sets out 695 American flags with dog-tag identifications for every deceased Hancock County veteran since the Civil War.

With $27 of every $34 in annual membership dues going to the national organization, Post 119 needs community assistance, in the form of monetary donations, to get over the hump, Baker said.

Inside, the post’s original white globe street light continues to illuminate the members club as it has done for 94 years, and Baker said it would be sad to see the post go dark.

“We’re just looking for the public to help us help the vets in this community,” he said.

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