February 8, 2001

KEEPING THE FLAG FLYING

Summary: Tigard's American Legion is lively, but other military veterans groups are struggling

by Kelly Kennedy
The Oregonian

   Every morning at the American Legion in Tigard, a dozen people show up when the doors
open at 10 to get their morning coffee and chat. Every Friday, the Ladies Auxiliary arrives for
pinochle.
   But the Tigard American Legion is an anomaly among veterans organizations. While other
groups fear extinction, the Tigard group has 546 members, two-thirds of them younger Gulf
War-era veterans, said Patsy Nestor. Nestor served in the Women's Army Corps during the
Korean War.
   "We're getting our young vets," she said. "We are accepting them. The World War II, Korean
and Vietnam vets were not as accepted, but we know we need our young people to keep us
going. Posts that do not are the ones who are dying on the vine."
   Like their buildings, organizations such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign
Wars once held prominent places in town.
   In these halls, they helped keep their small communities strong. Veterans gathered to talk
business, community service and politics, while their spouses knit blankets for the homeless,
gathered food for the poor and organized grand dances as part of the ladies auxiliary.
   But changing societal views of the military, patriotism and community and rapid growth have
veterans organizations in Sherwood, Tigard and Tualatin scrambling to grow and remain the glue
that binds old, small-town values to the new surge of residents.
   "Very seldom do we have newcomers come in," said Cyndi Dahl, of Sherwood, who joined
the American Legion Auxiliary in 1968. "It's sad that we don't promote ourselves enough.
   "The Easter egg hunt is such a big success, so many people and their children. But that's the
only time you see these people down at the hall."
   Dahl's husband, Don, returned to Sherwood after the Vietnam War and joined the American
Legion. Their fathers were members. When their son recently joined the U.S. Marine Corps, he
also signed up for the Legion.
   But "it's still the old families who are involved," Dahl said.
   Sherwood is not the only city in which veterans organizations are struggling. The numbers are
going down everywhere: In 1991, Oregon had 31,000 American Legion members; in 1999, there
were 27,000. Nationally, veterans organization memberships have dropped by 600,000 since
1998.
It won't be easy, but with 42,000 veterans in Washington County, the Legion knows increased
membership is possible. During the Gulf War, one out of every 100 people in Sherwood was in
the military.
   Still, Dahl has watched Sherwood's American Legion population go down. She said some of
the decline is because World War II vets nationally are dying at a rate of at least 1,000 a day.
The other part is that younger vets aren't joining.
   "People used to get together in a group, and that was the entertainment," she said. "I think it
has to do with lifestyles. Communities were more intimate, and entertainment has changed. With
TV, it's easier to come by. It's really hard to recruit the younger vets."
Community service
   The veterans groups spend much of their time performing community service: college
scholarships, Christmas presents to needy children, Halloween safety at local elementary schools,
Boys and Girls State sponsorships, and food baskets to the poor.
   "All the programs are aimed at getting parents in their 30s and 40s to join," Dahl said. "And
community service is the only way we can overcome the stigma that we're just the local bar."
   The Veterans of Foreign Wars have it a little tougher: There aren't as many veterans to choose
from. To join the American Legion, a person must have served one day in the military during a
time of conflict. To become a member of the VFW, a veteran must have earned a recognized
campaign medal.
   In other words, anyone who was in the military during the Persian Gulf War can join the
American Legion, but to join the VFW, a veteran must have served in the war theater.
   "Our numbers are going down," said Don Conover, hall manager for the Tualatin VFW. "For
some reason, the kids don't like to join until they're older. So they're not here yet, but we're
hoping."
   Tualatin's VFW has fewer than 100 members, and many of them are not active.
   Jeff Hill, Washington County veteran services officer, said there is some reluctance to join a
group that hasn't always been welcoming.
   "Both the VFW and American Legion formed after World War I," he said. "Then the World
War II vets wanted to join, but the World War I vets weren't sure they wanted them.
   "Eventually, the World War II vets took over. Then they had the same issues with the Korean
War. After Vietnam, there was a huge conflict about who fought the hardest. The service
organizations just don't get it -- there's a reluctance to accept the younger guys."
   Younger veterans vital Without the younger veterans, the organizations will die out.
   Nestor, the Korean War veteran from Tigard, joined the American Legion in Tigard and the
Tualatin VFW and ladies' auxiliary.
   "I didn't join until 23 years ago, but I got out of the Women's Army Corps in 1953," she said.
"Nobody had asked me -- but that's the standard answer. I grew up in Bend, where the
American Legion wasn't as prominent, so I just didn't know about it."
   She served as the Tigard's post commander in 1980 and 1981 and said the organization has
strengthened its efforts to bring new people in.
   The organization could serve as a role model for groups across the state. They advocate
relationships between all generations, and she said the new recruits are learning what other
members have known for years:
   "It's not only the vets but the auxiliary," she said. "It's very important because we have the same
likes in our willingness to help other vets and people in general.
   "You've got that thing in common -- we did it because we thought it was the right thing to do
no matter what service, what war or how much combat we saw. It's very rewarding to be a
member."