Younger Vets Are on a Mission to Change the American Legion from Within

Younger veterans are trying to reinvigorate the American Legion to focus more on family and community, with cookouts and fairs, etc. Mitch Viquez/The American Legion
Younger veterans are trying to reinvigorate the American Legion to focus more on family and community, with cookouts and fairs. (Mitch Viquez/The American Legion)

INDIANAPOLIS -- Older men sporting ball caps, and perhaps leather-patched vests, sit in a dark bar, smoke wafting about while they talk about their war days.

It's a stereotypical image associated with American Legion posts: a place to retreat and share kinship with men who became close because they stood side by side in conflicts like the Vietnam War, or met in veteran outreach programs.

But it's not the image the next generation of vets wants people to think of.

As they attempt to change the image of the nearly two-million-member organization, younger veterans say it's time to go back to a grassroots campaign of family-oriented programs and community service.

Related: New Law Will Allow Thousands More Veterans to Join American Legion

Two Post-9/11 vets who spoke with Military.com during the American Legion's 101st National Convention at the end of August said the organization, like the military itself, must shift and offer more personalized, tailored positions that give prospective members -- or those thinking of leaving the Legion -- a sense of purpose and belonging.

"At some point in time, the American Legion ... and other legacy service organizations, switched from being a community-centered focal point to being an exclusive social club. And that is switching back," said Derric Grimes, an Army veteran and a member of the post in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina. Military.com sat down with Grimes and Desiree "Dez" Guerra, a member of Department of Colorado District 7, during the convention.

The two say they've seen change gradually taking place: Post-9/11 vets find themselves more closely aligned to the Legion's founders, the World War I-era service members who were on a mission to give back to communities, build partnerships with local and state organizations and foster programs geared toward family events.

While the Legion has always maintained a responsibility to community initiatives, those efforts at some point became less prominent. The image of "a smoke-filled bar with a bunch of old guys sitting around complaining about the VA and swapping war stories" was born, Grimes said.

"We're fighting against our own perception of what the American Legion is -- because we're not a bar -- and we're fighting against the public perception because that's all they've seen for the last several decades," he said. "That's where you're seeing that positive growth across the country ... with doing stuff for our communities; that's what we're supposed to do."

Something for Everyone

John Raughter, the Legion's national deputy director of media relations, said he's heard this characterization for decades.

"Oh yes, there is a perception," Raughter said. He quoted a Wall Street Journal article written in 1971 titled, "American Legion, Once Civic and Social Power, Is Slowly Fading Away."

"The article goes on to say the old members are dying off, the young ones aren't interested ... and [the organization] is slowly ebbing in importance. So the older vets that were fading away, according to the article, were the World War I veterans, and the young ones were the Vietnam War vets, and today, they represent the largest segment of our membership. So these are perceptions that have existed. ... That article is 48 years old now," he said.

Acknowledging there has been the long-standing stigma, Raughter said each vet has something different to offer either to their Legion post or to his or her community.

"So for us to be diminished as some sort of social club, I think is an unfair statement," he said.

Grimes, 34, said the social-club aspect of his delegation, Post 116, does help keep the lights on.

"But is that who we are? No," he said.

New posts are especially promising because they offer a fresh start and can be whatever they want to be.

"A lot of people think that they have to have a building," Grimes said. "You can do it anywhere, really. Your home, community, just have to have a place to host your meetings. It could be someone's house. It could be a Denny's ... it could be a virtual [community]" through online video conferencing.

Related: Post-9/11 Vets' Groups Poised to Out-Raise Legacy Organizations, Report Finds

There is a larger, long-term strategy to bring in new members. Grimes and Guerra said the Legion is long overdue to incorporate more targeted conversations and marketing efforts to recruit and retain members.

The Legion "needs to capitalize on the talents of the people that they're recruiting," Guerra said.

Grimes and Guerra sit on the Legion's "National 21st Century Committee," which looks at future development for the organization.

Guerra said the recruitment conversation often starts with pushing an opening that really needs to be filled, "instead of saying, 'Hey, what do you do for a living? What is your interest?'"

"Pick a demographic, and it comes down to a question of, for lack of a better word, talent management and engagement," Grimes said.

The Legion's problems are similar to the challenges the U.S. military faces today in recruiting and retaining top talent. In response, the Defense Department has moved toward tailored messaging to a generation skeptical of service.

"We have a struggle with talent management, where we have people that want to come in and do good work, they want to continue serving, but we haven't trained ourselves as an organization to identify and put those people in the right position," Grimes said.

Derric Grimes, shown on the right in this screengrab from a November 2018 American Legion video, is an Army veteran and post member who wants the organization to move to a more family and community-oriented focus. Screengrab of American Legion video
Derric Grimes, shown on the right in this screengrab from a November 2018 American Legion video, is an Army veteran and post member who wants the organization to move to a more family and community-oriented focus. Screengrab of American Legion video

Other veterans organizations, such as Team Red, White and Blue; Team Rubicon; and Student Veterans of America, have seen recruiting success "because there's tangible benefits and a mission and they're getting after it and doing it," he said.

Retention is also a "huge problem," Grimes said, for similar reasons. "If you don't capitalize on the skill set or the interest of the veteran ... they're not going to renew. They don't want to come back. They can't get what they are looking for out of this organization, which we should be offering.

"[You have to] ensure that your providing something that is satisfying for all the members of your posts across all demographics and generations," he continued. "[You] really have to reinflate that sense of purpose and direction that people know that what they're doing is making a difference."

Pinpointed programs

It's unclear just how many post-9/11 vets belong to the American Legion. The statistics aren't tracked at the national level, a spokeswoman told Military.com.

But Post 116, for example, has seen significant growth, especially with younger vets. Ten years ago the post had roughly 250 members. Now, it's North Carolina's largest post, with more than 920 members.

One reason? They made it about family, Grimes said. Post 116 had been going through a tough phase, but reinvigorating family time -- cookouts, fairs, and a little something for everyone -- became the catalyst it needed.

"How do you get young members? You make it about family because if I can't take my ... family to Legion stuff, I'm not going. Sorry," he said.

Grimes, a West Point grad and former Army captain, went through three deployments in his eight years in the service, the last to Kuwait. "So my family time is sacred," he said.

Guerra said a success for her detachment has been Boys/Girls State, a youth program open to rising high school seniors who compete in mock-government trials. "It's a kind of crash course in how government actually works," she said.

At the competition in June, "we had probably almost 200 delegates," Guerra said. "There are other [state detachments] that have five times as much as that [participating], but that's just a big one for us."

Giving Back

Raughter, a Marine Corps vet, said it's also about the outreach work. The Legion gave more than $1 million in assistance aid to Coast Guard families during the government shutdown that ended last January.

"We held 41 career fairs last year" for service members and spouses transitioning out of the military, he added. "We've awarded $257,000 in national emergency fund grants ... in locations of natural disaster. We've provided $17 million in child welfare fund grants since 1955; last year alone, we [recorded] 562,000 volunteer hours by Legion members volunteering at their local VA ... so just look at these programs."

Guerra, a former Army signal support system specialist, was apprehensive of joining the American Legion. She had moved from Fort Carson, Colorado, to Joint Force Headquarters in California, before transitioning out in 2010 as an E-4.

But then she ended up homeless.

"I was homeless for almost a year. I was working two full-time jobs, going to school full time. And living at a school parking lot because I just didn't, I mean ... You're used to getting a paycheck on the first and the fifteenth of every single month, and they don't prepare you for [when that stops]," she said.

A group of motorcycle riders, some in the Legion, some in other vets communities, were the ones who brought her into the organization. She was on a Harley ride with her dad at the time, and the Legion riders invited them to tag along.

The vets were raising money for a homelessness initiative, to take "people off the streets and ... get them reestablished in the VA system, find a job, find housing."

"That's what got me involved," said Guerra, 33. She moved to Colorado in 2013.

"I started doing things with the riders and learned that there was another side of this. And I went to my first [Legion] national convention in Reno, [Nevada]. That was my first one. And to see the hard work of every department come to fruition was amazing," she said.

Grimes, an engineer, was involuntarily separated in 2015. He felt like he never finished his mission.

"I've always gotten a lot of looks from people when I tell them I'm involved with the American Legion and [a lot of], 'You're so young,'" he said.

"Yeah, I know, but I like what we do, right? I love our programs. I love our mission of taking care of veterans and their families and strengthening our community," Grimes said.

"That's the mission. That's what we do."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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