A bugle sounds from atop the Legion, which in the 6 o’clock sun half-darkens the scene below: a small group of Legionnaires had come out to the post on Wilshire Boulevard to retire some 200 American flags. Acrid smoke filters skyward as one by one the men inspect the flags and pass them into the incinerator.
Normally the Boy Scouts would be here, too, but the ceremony this time is kept limited because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Minnetonka American Legion Post #398 in Mound will see its centennial Oct. 1. The flag retirement Sept. 16 was just one small part of its 100-year legacy.
“WE’RE NOT JUST A BAR.”
By many accounts, Post #398 is thriving.
John Babler, post commander, estimates membership at 225-250 while Colby Sherman, commander for the Sons of the American Legion (SAL) counts SAL membership at 124. But the two agree that of these members, only a “core group” of some two dozen or so are routinely active in the Legion.
Membership to the Legion is open to those who have served in the armed forces during war eras and who are either active military or have been honorably discharged from the service. The SAL requires only that a member be descended from someone who has served.
The Legion moved into its current building in 1962, having previously quartered in the old bus depot.
Framed photographs and documents—charter members’ signatures, a 1932 fundraiser notice—line the wood-paneled walls. The atmosphere, relaxed, invites the casual come-and-go of members. It’s Wednesday (meatloaf day) and the Post is busy by pandemic standards.
Babler eschews the “stigma” of Legion posts as little more than watering holes. “We’re not just a bar. That’s not what we’re about.” Next to him, Sherman nods in agreement.
It’s an oft-assumed stigma: separately and a day later, sitting in a conference room at his Plymouth office, Kevin Wells adds his piece.
“The American Legion had a perception—‘Oh, it’s just a bunch of drunks sitting at a bar all the time.’ That’s not the case, that’s not what it’s about,” Wells is founder and current director of Post #398’s 10-man contingent of Legion Riders.
The Legion, chartered nationally in November of 1919 and giving birth to hundreds of local posts over the next several months, is the nation’s largest wartime veterans service organization. Honor Guard, funeral escort, procurement of VA benefits, general camaraderie—the Legion has long provided its members with a place of belonging.
Legion member Harry Hurley, who has just walked into the Legion and neatly smoothed his blue crown cap, says that he’s seen how veterans are often unable to talk about their time in the service until they are around others who went through what they did.
“Then they can sit around a campfire and talk about it,” he says. “You can’t force that for them but once they can [talk to other veterans], then they can start opening up and it can help them. And that’s one of the reasons we’re here.”
But declining membership has stripped some veterans of their posts. By Wells’ count, at least four posts in the Twin Cities metro area have closed recently because of a lack of membership. Members of the Legion and its SAL and Auxiliary organizations are aging but few from the younger generations are filling the ranks behind them.
But some of that decline may have come from negative societal attitudes toward veterans of unpopular wars. Wells commented that he saw Vietnam as a turning point in Legion membership. “They were looked down upon, that was the environment,” he said, contrasting their return home with the welcome received by veterans of WWII or Korea.
Hurley agrees. “Vietnam veterans didn’t feel like they were welcome anywhere. And they didn’t talk about it or anything else.” Hurley attributed this silence to much of the PTSD experienced by Vietnam-era vets, whom, he said, felt they had little opportunity for talking through their experiences and wanted only to have nothing to do with their time in the service.
But Hurley said the tide is slowly changing and that the Legion can openly be a place of solace for those who seek it. “It’s really tough on them to accept the fact that things have changed, that they are welcome now,” he said.
Leadership with the Mound post and its SAL say that gaining new members should happen organically. “You want them to come to you so [that] they understand and have a respect for the place,” said the SAL’s Sherman.
Said Hurley, some of that respect comes from knowing that membership isn’t about charity but about having a comrade-in-arms.