Benny Parker can’t figure it out. The outgoing commander of the Lindsey-Garrett American Legion Post 64 in Monroe has been part of the group since 1967.
When he joined, the Post was growing, its roster full of veterans of both World Wars.
“At meetings, we’d sit with the World War I guys up front, then the World War II guys, then Korea, and then us Vietnam vets in the back,” Parker said.
“We’d get 500 or 600 guys there.”
In the 1970s and ‘80s, Parker said, Post 64 claimed more than 1,200 members. But over the years, as the members ahead of him got older, dropped out, or died, he realized they weren’t being replaced.
And no matter how many times he turns the problem over in his head or debates it with fellow veterans, he can’t understand why younger veterans aren’t signing up for memberships.
They’re down to about 125 today. More recent veterans from the War on Terror just aren’t joining at the same rates as veterans of older wars did.
“We’ve got three or four from then, but that’s it. We just can’t get them.... It’s a hard situation. It’s hard to know why,” Parker said.
He’s hoping Post 64’s new home at 216 Cherry Hill Road will draw in some fresh blood to the Post. It’s got a refinished meeting hall, a new lounge with pool tables, and arcade games on the way.
They do karaoke, live music, bingo, barbecues, charity events and fellowship. Smoking isn’t allowed anymore.
“We work for the community, with scholarships and sponsoring Boy’s State and stuff...We want people to know we’re not just a beer lounge,”Parker said.
Since forming in 1924, the Lindsey-Garrett Post has sat on Alcovy Street. But after decades of chicken dinners, dances, bingo nights and Post 64 meetings, the Legion realized it would take more money to refurbish than to just start over somewhere new.
They sold the building off to lawyer and developer Paul Rosenthal, who is turning the old building into the centerpiece of a new neighborhood.
“Leaving that was sentimental, after 50 years,” Parker said.
The Post has been open at the Cherry Hill Road location for about two weeks now, with a grand opening planned in July.
Memberships are $35 a year, with $25 of it going to the state American Legion. Nationally, those dollars end up lobbying Congress for laws benefitting veterans, hospital funding and other causes. Locally, they sponsor fairs, baseball teams and help out with light bills or members in trouble.
Parker said they’re thinking about waiving fees for new members.
Because while the need for new members isn’t an existential threat just yet, it could be soon.
A post needs 15 members to keep its charter, Parker said.
“I don’t think we’ll get there in my lifetime, but if it keeps going like it is now...you’ve got to have 15 members,” Parker said.
Post 64 isn’t alone.
The Barrett-Davis-Watson Post in Loganville is facing a similar situation. So are American Legions and other veterans groups everywhere.
“We’ve all got the same kind of problem,” Loganville’s Post Commander Bill Dolan said.
The numbers at his post have also dwindled from close to 1,500 in the ‘80s to 577 today.
“We’ve been getting some new members but not as many as we need to sustain in the long term,” Dolan said.
For that matter, civic engagement in just about all forms, from the American Legion to the Kiwanis to churches has declined across America for decades, according to researchers like sociologist Robert Putnam.
But Parker is still hopeful that Post 64 can be different. His successor as commander of the Post is Chris Hickman, a younger Iraqi War veteran, for stance
“We’ve just got to show these young boys the benefits of being in the American Legion,” Parker said.