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The gift of gab helps American Legion posts rejuvenate membership

From left, Tom Hadlock, Paul Haines and Lisha

From left, Tom Hadlock, Paul Haines and Lisha Terry are members of the Arthur Ellis Hamm American Legion Post 834 in Westhampton Beach. Credit: Heather Walsh

At least a couple of American Legion posts in Suffolk County have seen a big rise in new members even as many others continue to struggle with steadily declining enrollment due to deaths and lack of interest from younger generations of veterans.

To Dennis Madden, 72, of Commack, former commander of Greenlawn's American Legion Post 1244, where membership tripled from 83 in 2005 to 247 so far this year, the solution seemed simple.

“We engaged anyone who wore a baseball cap that says Army, Air Force and Navy,” the Army veteran said. “We would say: ‘Where did you serve? What post do you belong to? You don’t have a post? Let me tell you about my post.’ ”

That was part of a strategy developed by legion officials like Madden to counter a longstanding problem that has tested the relevancy of America’s largest wartime veterans service organization.

Legion officials said active recruiting and participating in community events have proved effective in attracting new members and energizing existing ones.

“If you don’t ask, nobody is going to volunteer,” Madden said. “It’s like looking for a job. If you sit back in your chair, nobody would come knock on your door.”

Over the years, member deaths and low enrollment have plagued traditional veterans groups like the 100-year-old American Legion and The Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Just eight months ago, the VFW Gerard & Eugene Linder Post 8031 in New Hyde Park closed due to declining membership. The American Legion's Ernie Pyle Post 1089 in New Hyde Park has since sent out several notices in the village newsletter saying the group is “in dire need of membership.”

Of Suffolk’s 46 posts, a few exist only on paper and have no members, said James Beecher, Suffolk County’s legion commander. Beecher’s post in Babylon, which in its heyday had 800 members two decades ago, has about half that number now.

“Age has taken a real toll on us. And there’s not enough younger people coming in,” said Beecher, 70, of North Babylon, noting younger generations of veterans are busy settling into civilian life with family and work.

There was a time when the Arthur Ellis Hamm American Legion Post 834 in Westhampton Beach was once close to meeting the same fate of the VFW post. In 2014, the legion post had three active members, including its commander, Tom Hadlock, and treasurer, Mike Berdinka.

“We were going down in numbers,” Hadlock, 77, of Westhampton, said of his post that now has 51 members. "But we rejuvenated."

Whenever Paul Haines, adjutant of the Westhampton Beach post, sees a veteran — be it in the hallways of a Northport hospital or on the sidelines of a Memorial Day parade, he said he approaches them, strikes up a conversation and asks whether they are a legion member yet.

“We are a good support group. … We need membership,” said Haines, 72, of East Moriches, who recruited half of the post’s members in recent years. “What the legion needs is a guy like me or Tom Hadlock or Mike Berdinka who says: ‘Hi, wanna join?’ ”

THE PROOF IS IN THE NUMBERS

  • The Arthur Ellis Hamm American Legion Post 834 in Westhampton Beach saw its membership rise from three in 2014 to 51 as of this year.
  • The membership of Greenlawn American Legion Post 1244 increased from 83 in 2005 to 247 in 2019.
  • Madden said the Greenlawn post members attend more than 150 community events a year, which gives members plenty of activities to engage in and allows officials to actively recruit new members.

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