Calvin Albert, commander of American Legion Dorsey-Liberty Post No. 14, attributes some of the decline to the busy lifestyles of Vietnam veterans.
A bartender looks out from a U-shaped bar at a gathering of silver-haired Legionnaires and their companions who are tapping their toes to the beat of Dixie Land and Big Band music.
The dance floor remains bare in the dimly-lit room, but when John Weatherwax and the Junk Yard Jazz Band breaks into "I'm in the Mood for Love," and Legionnaire Dan Jaimes croons into the microphone, couples move to the center of the room and snuggle close, wrapped up in themselves and memories of young love.
Members of the American Legion Dorsey-Liberty Post No. 14 enjoy this social event every Thursday night, but the post's commander, Calvin Albert, predicts the Legion and such events might become extinct if younger veterans are not enrolled as members.
Albert, who took command of the post in March, said an outreach program to increase the number of veterans in the Legion was his major goal.
Reaching that goal is not something Albert thinks can be easily done. But in his attempt to do that, he is placing the membership of the state of Kansas in a database, which will be updated regularly. From that list he proposes the members be divided demographically with 15 to 20 people placed on call lists. Once a month they could be called or special activities could be planned for members of the same demographics.
Another idea Albert attributed to a sleepless night was a proclamation from Lawrence Mayor Erv Hodges declaring this American Legion Week. As a part of that proclamation, residents were asked to fly their flags in observance of those who served in the armed forces. He said the proclamation was not intended to get members interested in the American Legion, but copies of it were snapped up by Legion members.
"The proclamation did electrify the membership. It meant a hell of a lot to a lot of them," Albert said.
It meant enough that the Legion is hoping to include the rest of the state in a similar proclamation next year.
Why the decline?
Albert also attempted to get 102 Vietnam veterans in the post region charged up about the Legion by calling them, but he gained only two members from the effort.
"We have trouble getting a footprint of those people in our organization," Albert said.
One atypical Vietnam vet who has made an imprint in the American Legion is Vern Russell, vice commander of the Second District who is still active in the Naval Reserve. One reason few Vietnam veterans are in the organization, he said, is middle-age responsibilities of families and their jobs.
"With this age, we all have jobs and families. We have to set priorities, and it's hard to find time for other activities," Russell said.
When people start retiring or their children are away from home, they have more time for other organizations, he said.
Albert agreed that busy lifestyles contribute to a decrease in membership, but he also sees other factors as causes for the decline.
"I refer to it as the end of your nose philosophy. If you don't see any immediate benefit from something, you say forget it," Albert said.
Older, discouraged Legionnaires are dropping out, he said, because they do not see the Legion as a strong enough advocate for veterans. Examples he pointed to are a lack of pending legislation to deal with decreased benefits and life insurance of $1,000.
"There's kind of a little rage going on, something like road rage," he said.
Often veterans needing health care have found hospitals jammed and they can't get in, Albert said. Veterans hospitals in Topeka and Leavenworth do not have the facilities to care for the increasing number of older veterans.
These reasons contribute to the post's membership of 754. That's down by about 30 veterans from last year.
Other groups' troubles
Other local veterans' group, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Disabled American Veterans, are experiencing similar reductions in membership.
"With 1,000 World War II veterans dying each day, the VFW membership is obviously going down," said Gus Smith, commander of the Alfred-Clarke Post 852.
VFW has had less trouble attracting Vietnam vets. Of the post's 500 members, Smith, said a strong percentage are of that war. Most of the post's officers, other than himself, are Vietnam veterans.
But declining membership is still a concern.
Smith, who took over command of the post this month, said VFW might have to rethink its membership policy to keep the organization going. The main difference between membership in the VFW and the American Legion is that VFW members must have been engaged in a war and has received an overseas campaign medal, whereas American Legion membership is open to anyone who has served in the armed forces.
The DAV on a day-to-day basis focuses on helping injured or disabled veterans with financial, medical and personal needs.
Veterans organizations are involved in community service projects, offer scholastic scholarships, sponsor programs to benefit youth, and observe Memorial Day, Flag Day and Veterans Day with special ceremonies. A recent project adopted by the VFW is the collection of supplies for veterans living in the Old Soldiers Home in Dodge City. In celebration of the VFW's 100th anniversary, the local post is planning an open house in September.
To finance these projects and the maintenance of their post homes, various fund-raisers are sponsored. Bingo, open to the public twice a week, is a major source of income for Post 14. Another fund-raiser the post initiated in May was a flea market in the parking lot of its post home at 3408 W. Sixth St.
Fund-raising efforts by some posts have been hampered by various changes in the region. Albert said the Olathe Legion was "wiped out" by legalized riverboat gambling. The operating cost of the Legion's post home, Albert said, is one of the biggest expenses, but the building also is a source of income.
"The true mission of the Legion of comradeship and advocacy doesn't even need a building," Albert said.
-- Cheryl Attebury is a journalism teacher at Free State High School. She is interning with the Journal-World this week.