No American flags will be placed on the graves of veterans this year by members of veterans organizations. They simply no longer have the manpower.
The VFW in town closed a few years ago and merged with the American Legion, which owns the building at the corner of Circle and Adams. Even after combining forces, only about seven members show up regularly at their monthly meetings.
However, Forest Park resident Eric Van Ness, the junior vice commander of the small group, officially named American Legion Post 414, is working to revitalize the organization.
He cites several reasons for the decline in membership.
“I know there are veterans out there,” he said, “but they’re busy. It’s crazy nowadays. When my wife and I tried to find a date on which we were both free to celebrate our anniversary, we had to look two weeks in advance to find a day.”
He pointed to old photographs on the American Legion wall to illustrate another reason for the decline in participation.
“When you look at the pictures of the guys who built this place,” he said, “they were all the same age, all from Forest Park, all deployed at the same time and in the same unit.”
American culture has changed. A website called Bookrag describes the work of scholar Robert Putnam, who concludes that “social capital and engagement have declined [in the U.S.] in areas such as organizational membership, attending religious services, attending club meetings, and interacting with others face-to-face in communities.”
Van Ness knows he’s swimming against the current but he’s determined to try to breathe new life into the post by growing the membership and increasing the revenue stream by making community residents aware that the hall is available to rent.
For example, he helped organize a Super Bowl party last February which 20 people attended to watch the game, with drinks, food and a raffle. Three weeks later, the post held a rummage sale at which people could rent a table and sell things. The post is going to have a booth at the 5K race held in Concordia Cemetery, sponsored by Forest Park firefighters, and on June 11 they’ll be putting on a pancake breakfast.
These events are designed to raise money which helps the post maintain their building and fund various charities they sponsor. Perhaps more importantly, the events draw people into their building, make them aware that the facility is available for rent, and/or exposes the organization to veterans in the area who might find support and fellowship with other people who have served in the military.
Debra Funderwhite has lived in Forest Park for 22 years and is on the same page as Van Ness, but she waited almost 30 years before joining any kind of veterans organization. Now, however, she is firmly on board. The American Legion Hall, she pointed out, is an underused asset in Forest Park.
“The post is a wonderful facility in Forest Park,” she said, “and we would like to invite veterans and their family members to share in the revitalization of it.”
Funderwhite joined the Army Reserve back in 1982 and served as a communication specialist until 1988. She comes from a military family: her father was in the Navy; two nephews were in the Marines; and five of her siblings were in the Army. She feels good about her time in the military.
“Joining the Army Reserve,” she said, “was one the best things I could have done. I learned to push my limits both mentally and physically. It taught me discipline and respect for leadership and our country.”
Van Ness feels good about his time in the Army as well. He joined right out of high school and was attached to the 415th Civil Affairs Battalion, based in Kalamazoo, Michigan. While serving, he was in a program which also allowed him to go to college. In 2003 he and his unit were deployed to Kosovo where he did civil affairs work like helping civilians set up local governments, get schools going again, and helping chambers of commerce get up and running.
One reason Van Ness is investing himself in the revitalization of the American Legion is that, like Funderwhite, he had a very positive experience in the Army. Acknowledging that while some soldiers arrive back home with physical and emotional wounds that never heal, most soldiers actually miss the time they spent in the service.
“When you are deployed,” he explained, “there are critical things that have to get done and you are an important part of a team that is doing so. People were happy to see us. The children would all excitedly run up to us when we would come into town. They would want to talk and play with us. Yeah, you don’t get that when you come home. There’s a big letdown. There you had a sense of purpose because you were doing something that mattered.”
The American Legion was chartered and incorporated by Congress in 1919 as a patriotic veterans organization devoted to mutual helpfulness. Eric Van Ness can be reached at email@example.com.