Two veterans groups try to boost their ranks

April 04, 1994|By Sherry Joe | Sherry Joe,Sun Staff Writer

If you are a member of the armed forces and served in Desert Storm, Panama, Grenada or Vietnam, the local chapters of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars are looking for you.

Members of the two veterans groups are on a mission to increase flagging membership in their posts, both in Ellicott City.

"It's imperative we get people from the most recent wars," said John Horan, a World War II veteran and commander of Howard County's only American Legion Post, No. 156. "Us old guys can't last forever."

The American Legion is open to all veterans who served at least one day of active duty during certain periods, ranging from 1917 to the present. The VFW is open to any veteran who served in a combat zone overseas.

As World War II veterans die, younger members are needed to continue the organizations' community service programs and to fight for veterans benefits on Capitol Hill, according to local veterans leaders.

Nonmembers, they said, are missing out on special benefits.

"There's many benefits the veterans have use of," said Robert Geller, a 67-year-old World War II Navy veteran and Howard County commander of the American Legion. "They have VA hospitals and cemeteries."

But he and other veterans warn that the constituency for such benefits may disappear unless more veterans join the advocacy groups.

Of the 20,000 veterans in Howard County, fewer than 1,000 belong to the veterans groups, leaders said. About 600 belong to VFW Post No. 7472, while 250 are members of American Legion Post No. 156. Leaders of those groups said they don't know why so few veterans join the American Legion or VFW.

"I don't know what it is," said Lew Mills, a 70-year-old World War II Army veteran and commander of VFW Post No. 7472.

For the past two weeks, Mr. Geller has been sending letters and calling veterans who have not joined the group.

He also examines the transfer forms of people who have just left the military, whose names are placed on the roster of a "holding" post in Baltimore, which holds no actual meetings. The transfer forms allow those veterans to transfer from the temporary post to a permanent post near their homes.

"It's an untapped reserve for the American Legion," Mr. Geller said.

Group leaders also hope that female veterans may swell the ranks of local advocacy groups.

In addition, they hope to reach nonmembers by stationing veterans at Florence Bain Senior Center to answer questions about benefits or about the two veterans organizations.

"We would encourage veterans to come in if they have questions about benefits" Mr. Horan said.

If county officials allow the groups to use space at the senior center, one member from each would volunteer twice a week to answer veterans' questions.

Mr. Geller said that if more veterans join local posts, the national organization could strengthen its lobbying efforts.

He said a larger organization could represent veterans better on issues such as Agent Orange, a defoliant used during the Vietnam War and linked to skin and lung problems, and the complaints of Desert Storm veterans about being exposed to gas.

"We can get them better service at the Veterans Affairs department than if they were working on their own," Mr. Geller said. "We're trying to lobby Congress to do something."

Information on joining the American Legion is available by calling Mr. Geller at 465-7176. Information on joining the VFW is available by calling member chairman Wayne Barker at 788-6107.

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