Membership becomes Legion goal

Nathan Domenighini
The Morton American Legion, above, faces membership struggles. But, it is not just a local problem. Legions throughout Illinois are struggling.

The past 10 years have been difficult for American Legion membership. American Legions throughout Illinois have been losing membership at a consistent rate.

Since 2000, Illinois has lost nearly 20,000 American Legion members, leaving its current total at 121,000.

It has been a tough battle for the veterans’ service organization.

“The biggest challenge is signing up new members,” said Larry Stimeling, senior vice commander for the American Legion 16th District.

“We aren’t keeping up with the death rate,” he said. “At the rate we’re going, the American Legion, as a whole, is not going to be able to continue.

Stimeling said there are a variety of reasons that contribute to the lack of new members, but perception of the veterans’ organization seems to be the most concerning.

“The perception is that the Legion can’t do anything for them,” he said, adding it could not be further from the truth.

“The Legion is in the process of changing its image to be more than the bar down the street,” he added.

The state department has indicated another perception that severely limits participation, Stimeling said.

“The Legion, itself, is too old, too white and too male,” he said.

“Legions are veterans’ service organizations. As such, they provide representation with the department of veterans’ affairs,” he said.

Members receive individualized assistance through veterans’ affairs programs.

“As a veteran, you’ve earned these things,” he said. “As a member, you can find out what you’ve got coming to you and how to get it.”

The problem is, returning eligible veterans are not signing up.

“It’s several things,” Stimeling said. “They’re young and just starting their lives. They don’t have time for the Legion.”

The Morton American Legion launched a campaign that recognizes current military members serving in current wars. While deployed, their names are posted through signage on Courtland Avenue. The idea is to give the signs back to local military personnel upon their return.

Stimeling, a Morton American Legion member, said the hope is to encourage those returning to join the American Legion.

Additionally, Legions are working to become more family oriented.

“It can be a family organization,” Stimeling said. “The national and state departments are wanting us to focus more on family-oriented (services).”

Stimeling is concerned that, at the rate of current membership, American Legions will find it more difficult to do the things they have done in the community, such as Memorial Day services and community scholarships.

“We don’t have the manpower to do the things we used to be able to do,” he said.