Local leaders of veterans’ organizations the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars say they’re working to reverse declines in membership, starting by serving Maine communities and raising awareness.

“The old story of veterans walking through the door is over,” said Steven San Pedro, membership chairman for the Maine Veterans of Foreign Wars and former state commander.

San Pedro said his organization needs to change its image “of old people drinking and smoking in a bar” into something younger veterans can identify with. And officials are pushing to not use the acronym VFW for Veterans of Foreign Wars, as it makes the organization sound “less important,” San Pedro said.

Nationally, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars have seen a steady membership decline, primarily due to deaths of World War II veterans, which average 362 a day, according to the National World War II Museum. The number of Veterans of Foreign Wars and Auxiliary members nationwide fell from 2.1 million in 2011 to 1.7 million today. The American Legion had 2.4 million members in 2010, and currently has 2.2 million members nationwide.

In Maine, the American Legion in Maine has experienced a 4.6 percent decline in each of the past five years. It now has 18,544 members, including 91 new ones. The Veterans of Foreign Wars and its auxiliary saw a 7 percent decline from 2010 to 2015, but recently gained back 1.5 to 2 percent.

Amy Meuchel says Maine VFW Post 6859 in Portland recruits young veterans by going every semester to veterans clubs at schools like Southern Maine Community College and the University of Southern Maine. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The American Legion will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2019, and according to Scott Paradis, the first vice commander of the American Legion Department of Maine, it’s ready to reinvent itself.

“It used to be just about sharing old war stories, but now we’re becoming more involved,” said Paradis, who is a member of Post 73 in Corinna. “It’s not your grandfather’s Legion anymore.”

Last year, the American Legion Department of Maine headquarters established special committees to address recruiting post-9/11 and women veterans, Paradis said. A new public relations committee was also created to help with raising awareness and the organization’s public image.

Paradis, who joined the American Legion in 1995, said veterans often wait until their early 30s and 40s to join organizations like the American Legion. He also cites a lack of awareness of the organization’s work as one of the main reasons for dwindling membership numbers.

He said the organization should remain service-focused, to bring in new members.

“Offer outstanding service, and (veterans) will join,” he said.

The American Legion in Maine offers educational scholarships for the children and grandchildren of veterans and, through the American Legion Riders of Maine, raises money for local children’s hospitals, veterans’ homes and wounded service members.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars has 56 posts in Maine, with 10,000 members. The average age of members is 60. The organization dates back to 1899, when veterans of the Spanish-American War and the Philippine insurrection formed local groups and fought for benefits. In 2008, the Veterans of Foreign Wars helped pass the 21st century G.I. Bill of Rights, which expanded education benefits to those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Like the American Legion, the group has looked for ways to address recruiting post-911 and women veterans. In 2010, it established a committee of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans, of which San Pedro is a member. A committee of women veterans was also established. A few years ago, the group signed an agreement with Student Veterans of America to get into the schools and “tell its story,” said San Pedro.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars has started to market to what young people are interested in, such as video games and sports. The organization has partnered with athletes, such as Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburg Steelers, to raise awareness.

Yet the issue is not only about recruiting young veterans. Plenty of Vietnam War-era veterans have not joined veteran organizations.

“Lots of Vietnam War veterans aren’t members,” San Pedro said. “They weren’t welcomed home right and weren’t welcomed into the organizations right.”

Amy Meuchel of VFW Post 6859 in Portland (and commander of Maine VFW District 10), said her post recruits young veterans by going every semester to veterans clubs at schools, such as Southern Maine Community College and the University of Southern Maine, when she and other members can visit. But most of the time, she said, it’s just about wearing a uniform and getting asked a question.

Meuchel said that out of about 400 post members, a quarter are women.

“Not many women in Maine are veterans,” she said. “We are definitely in the minority.”

But despite that, her post does not have any specific strategies for recruiting women.

“We all do the same job and are part of the same mission,” she said.

Cara DeRose can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

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