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Toledo, Ohio & Lake Erie

The Press Newspaper

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        The American Legion, an organization created by an act of Congress in 1919 and which spearheaded the original GI Bill for veterans returning from World War II in the 1940s, has seen its national membership dwindle to 2.4 million, down from 2.7 million a decade ago and 3.1 million 20 years ago.

        At Oregon’s Christ Dunberger American Legion Post 537, just two World War II veterans remain and one Korean vet, Bud Shanks, is approaching 90 years old.

 

        When 78-year-old Corky Walters joined the Dunberger Post about 18 years ago, membership was close to 350 and the Color Guard had 31 members. Today, he says membership is at about 200 and the Color Guard has 19, just two over the minimum to operate a full military funeral.

        American Legion members have done everything they can to get membership moving in the right direction.

        Walters’ friend, Jim Ernsthausen, is a member of the Color Guard after serving 21 years (1967-88) with the Army National Guard.

        “We went out to Tracy Road, to the National Guard Armory out there, and we gave two different presentations on two different drill weekends, and they were most cooperative. But, both times we went out we didn’t get one member from it. I think the people from Desert Storm, or anybody who served from 1990 to the present time, is eligible for the Legion now. But most of those young people are still working,” Ernsthausen said.

        He notes that falling membership is not only happening at the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, it is also happening within civic organizations like the Masons, Kiwanis, or Rotary.

        “Almost any organization that has any organization that has members is down — I don’t care if it’s military or something like the Masons,” Walters said. “They are all losing membership because younger people don’t seem to be interested. And, a lot of them probably don’t have time, but if they are not working, they are watching the kids while the wife is working.

        “They’re all into the electronic age. I know I never joined here until I was about 60 because I was involved with the fire department, the police department and working a full time job. Even if we can get people in their 60s who are still healthy, it would be nice because our average age is about 75.”

Camaraderie, assistance available

        Ernsthausen and Walters say the American Legion has representatives at Veterans Affairs facilities who can help today’s younger veterans.

        “Probably most of them are eligible (for VA care),” Ernsthausen said. “We emphasize that if you are eligible for the VA, even if you don’t need it now, it takes just about a year to get into the system, so a lot of people wait until they need it, and then they have to wait a year. So, we encourage everybody, if you are going to get into the VA, go ahead and get into the system whether you can use it right now so you don’t run into that problem.”

        Walters adds, “I’ve never gotten into the system myself, but we have a lot of members here who are. In fact, one of our members works out there (Toledo’s VA Clinic), so he could be an asset to them, too, as far as telling them what to do, where to go and who to see.

        Walters believes the camaraderie at an American Legion post can be helpful, too.

        “The thing is, there are people here who understand them and not just with the Color Guard, but with the Legion itself,” Walters said. “It’s a brotherhood, if you want to put it that way. If they have issues or whatever, they are not alone. Some of these old World War II guys talk about stuff that happened to them back then, but they didn’t call it PTSD then, it was shell shock or something. They’ve made it more technical, but it’s still the same. Some of them get over here and can just sit and talk to the guys and share some of their thoughts and problems and know that they are not alone and that we can help them.”

Up to Congress

        Ernsthausen and Walters believe that membership could go back up if Congress would change the rules, allowing veterans who served during peace time to join the Legion. They note that many of them have made sacrifices, too, but they believe Congress will never support the idea of one large service organization representing all veterans.

        “The membership is controlled by The Congress, which tells you that’s a bad thing right off the bat,” Walters said. “They have been contacted probably every year for the past 50 years to open it up to any veteran with an honorable discharge, but my feelings if they let all these millions of veterans join, we’re going to be too powerful. We can tell the Congress what to do, you know. That’s just my thoughts.

        “It’s a shame, because we have Andy (Horvath), who is a World War II vet, and all three of his sons were in the Navy, two of them during the right times and they qualify to be members but the third wasn’t because he was in during  the wrong years, and that’s bologna. He was a nuclear engineer on the submarines.

        “My son-in-law is a retired Air Force major. He flew the C-5s, and he was over for Desert Storm and Desert Shield and all that stuff, and he is a member. He joined years ago with his dad in Clay Center when they had the post over there.

        Ernsthausen adds, “I know a lot of the older veterans, when they associate with the American Legion they associate with the government. It’s hard to emphasize that a lot of times we have to fight Congress to get the benefits and stuff that we do have. It’s not like we are in cahoots with them or anything.

        “Especially Agent Orange. I mean they tried to bury that for so long, and we finally got it recognized and much of that was accomplished by the VFW and the American Legion, but there’s a whole story that goes along with that.”

        Ernsthausen was active during the Vietnam era, remained in active reserve for 21 years, and then was on inactive reserve until 2005, which means he could have been activated for more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but wasn’t.

        “I was sure I’d be called up, but I think at that point I was too old,” Ernsthausen said.

        Walters, who served in the Marine Corps from 1959-63, said he never set foot in Vietnam, but they sent him into Thailand watching the borders in 1962 “before people even know there was a Vietnam.”

        The Dunberger Post Color Guard is also seeking new members. Call Ernsthausen at 419-836-9740 or Walters at 419-704-8509.

       

 

 

       

 

 

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