As when they were back in basic training — in the middle of the horror of one battle or another, or perhaps facing whatever challenges followed those battles — they may be in the midst of some tough times, but they are nowhere near defeated.
Commander of American Legion Post 23 Beecher Wright says his unit was once one of the largest in the state. They currently have 783 Legionnaires, along with just over 200 members of the Sons of the American Legion and a large Women’s Auxiliary. The first number alone, though, was once in the thousands.
“We need members, there’s no doubt about that,” Wright says, admitting it’s difficult to attract younger vets into the organization. Having served a total of 20 years in the military, Army and Air Force combined, Wright is 71 and says the average age of the members of Post 23 keeps rising. So, what would he say to a young vet to entice him to join?
“I’d ask him if he wants to be around other vets, around other people who’ve fought in wars and been through the same experiences,” Wright says.
He also might point out the many services the Legion provides to veterans, from help with the VA to funeral processions and color guards at various events. The Legion will, of course, provide a color guard for Portsmouth’s Memorial Day activities, especially at Soldiers’ Circle in Greenlawn Cemetery and, later, on the banks of the Ohio River as they honor fallen Navy vets.
By the way, for those who might not understand how the Legion is organized, regular members must be service veterans. It doesn’t matter if you served during war or peacetime. Women are invited to join, as you might expect, the Women’s Auxiliary. Children of veterans who can prove their parents served, or are serving, can join the Sons of the American Legion. There also is a possibly at a somewhat lesser-known group called the 40/8 that works with the Legion but is a separate organization.
Picking up on a theme hinted at by Wright, Post 23 member Jim Pinson talked a lot about trying to attract younger members and families. For example, the Portsmouth post is planning its first teen dances for June 5 and Aug. 14. Both he and Wright mention fish and hamburger fries held at the post. The Friday fish fries are on hold for the summer, but Wright says there is always someone cooking burgers and French fries at the post on Wednesday evenings. Those events are open to the public.
“I just like it down here,” Pinson says of his membership in the American Legion. “They’re all veterans. They know what’s going on.”
American Legion Post 23 sits on Court Street in downtown Portsmouth. Not far away, American Legion Post 471 makes its home on Gallia Street. On Friday, Post 471 was holding a fundraiser in its appropriately titled Freedom Hall. Fiscal officer Randy Detherage, an Army vet who usually goes by the nickname “Groundhog,” answered a few questions on behalf of his post. Like Post 23, Post 471 could use some new blood. Groundhog says his post was never as big as Post 23, and they currently have about 450 Legionnaires.
“My main objective is keeping the doors open,” Groundhog says. “We’re in the best financial shape we’ve been in for a while.” He quickly adds five years ago that wasn’t the case, and notes the post is now just a few years away from paying off its building. Groundhog talks about the Legion working with the VA hospital in Waverley and helping homeless vets who might be passing through by, for example, putting them up in a hotel for the night.
All in all, in 2017, Post 471 donated $17,000 to various charities, such as the Shriners, a Scioto County homeless shelter and the Autism Project of Southern Ohio. Groundhog also is a member of a separate organization known as the Patriot Guard Riders, a motorcycle group that provides help with vet funeral processions and so on. And while Groundhog says he likes serving vets and the community, it’s the camaraderie of other veterans that keeps him coming back to the American Legion.
Groundhog completed his service during the Vietnam era, but was never in that country himself. “So, I technically have no war stories,” he says. “But there are a lot of things you can only talk about with other people who have been there and done that.
“I first came in on a whim and just sat there swapping stories and had one of the best nights of my life up to that point.”
Groundhog encourages younger vets to just stop by.
“Just come check us out. You never know, you might like it.”
Post 471 also has a strong Women’s Auxiliary with about 161 members, said membership chair Betty Taylor, who was selling tickets at the door for Friday’s fundraiser. She also talked about a Junior Auxiliary for children, ages birth to 18, of vets. They have about 42 members and, among other activities, regularly visit VA hospitals.
Of course, the American Legion is not the only veterans group in the area. On Friday, two members of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3638 in Sciotoville were outside the Walmart in New Boston taking part in the VFW’s annual poppy sale. Perhaps even more than the local American Legion Posts, the VFW is in dire need of new membership, said Navy vet Jim Hamilton. Because of their small numbers, the group has essentially joined forces with a Legion post. They have about 350 members, not all of whom are very active, Hamilton adds.
“We have a hard time attracting younger members,” he continues.
“We help vets out any way we can if they are in need,” says Rich Wesney, another Navy vet. Wesney also talks about helping the local Boy Scouts, taking part in the Wheelersburg Memorial Day parade and other types of activities such as you might expect. But just like Groundhog, Wesney says it’s his friendships with other vets that keep him coming back to his organization.
“We like to help our own kind and would like to be with own kind, and that’s other vets,” Wesney concludes.
Reach Tom Corrigan at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931