“LEST WE FORGET’ reads the memorial stone in front of the Day County Courthouse, surrounded by Day County VFW members Roger Monson and Emil Ninke who is a member of Webster Legion Post 40 also. Membership chairman for that organization is Loren Reiprich; also pictured is past commander of the Roslyn American Legion Post Ron Simonson. Photo by Amanda Fanger.
by Amanda Fanger, Reporter and Farmer
Patriotic organizations such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars are seeing a decline in membership enrollments.
Across the nation, membership enrollment numbers in the American Legion have declined by 11 percent since 2000.
According to Loren Reiprich, membership chairman of Webster’s American Legion Post 40, membership has declined by 16 percent in the past decade.
“Ten years ago, we were somewhere around 280 members,” he said. “We were 235 last year.”
Membership numbers for 2013 are still coming in, but he says they hope to reach at least the same number they had last year. Reiprich says Post 40 had an all-time high in membership in 1983 with 316.
Post 40 spokesman, current treasurer and past Legion Commander Tom Sannes says membership for their organization is an issue.
“It’s sad to see the dwindling numbers,” he said. “With the passing of the World War II generation, we’ve seen a significant drop in membership and active members.”
At the Rudolph Baukol Post in Roslyn, past Legion Commander Ron Simonson says their current membership is around 30, while 10 years ago they had about 45 members.
“It’s an organization that’s growing older,” he said.
While the quota for membership in Post 129 in Waubay is 104, according to Dwayne Eidet, they only have about 94 members currently.
“It’s down some, (but) we’re holding steady,” he said. “Most of the World War II members have died. We’ve been losing members by them passing on.”
Doug Lynch, Legion Commander of Post 156 in Lily says they’ve lost three members to the grave just in the past six months. That brings their total membership down from 21 to 18. Ten years ago, they had closer to 30 members.
“Eleven percent is probably pretty close,” he said. “It’s getting to the point if we need to do a funeral, we have to call around to find enough people to do the military honors.”
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 640 World War II veterans die each day.
Day County has lost 19 veterans since Memorial Day last year, according to Roger Monson of the Webster VFW, who says he’s been keeping track of the deaths.
The Webster VFW is the only one left in Day County.
While they’ve seen an increase in membership numbers in the past decade, there has been a decrease across the region.
“Region wise, we were at 100 percent membership a year ago, but this year, we’re only at 94 percent,” Monson said.
Ten years ago, the Webster VFW had 98 members. Today, they have 142.
But a lot of that has to do with the closing of other VFWs in the county – such as the club in Bristol five or six years ago.
“It’s getting tougher all the time,” Monson added.
American Legion dates of eligibility
Those eligible to become a member of the American Legion include those currently on active duty serving anywhere in the world or during any of the following war eras:
Aug. 2, 1990 to today (Gulf War/War On Terrorism)
Dec. 20, 1989 to Jan. 31, 1990 (Panama)
Aug. 24, 1982 to July 31, 1984 (Lebanon/Grenada)
Feb. 28, 1961 to May 7, 1975 (Vietnam War)
June 25, 1950 to Jan. 31, 1955 (Korean War)
Dec. 7, 1941 to Dec. 31, 1946 (World War II)
April 6, 1917 to Nov. 11, 1918 (World War I)
Those eligible for membership of the VFW must be U.S. citizens who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, and have served in an overseas conflict. Active duty military personnel can also join, including Reserve and National Guard service members.
While American Legion membership nationwide is down to 2.4 million since 2000, there are 22.7 million veterans nationwide, most of whom are eligible for membership.
The representation of the Legion posts in Day County say it seems to be the younger veterans who are not signing up.
According to Eidet, the average age of a member in Waubay is 50, although there are some who are in their upper 60s.
“We haven’t got too many younger members right now,” he said.
In Webster, the Legion is trying things to increase their numbers by offering a free one-year membership with commitment to a second year, according to Reiprich.
Sannes says that the Webster Legion is active in recruiting new members. They reach out by visiting with potential members about the benefits of joining and adds that the Legion tries to maintain a strong public presence in their communities.
Recruiting efforts in a smaller community such as Roslyn, Simonson says, “you pretty much know everybody.”
That post, he says is constantly talking to veterans who live there about joining.
“There are only a handful of younger veterans in the community,” he said. “We aren’t getting a lot of younger ones to sign up. That’s plain and simple.”
Sannes also noted that Day County, and Webster in particular, will likely begin to see an even larger decrease in American Legion membership as the South Dakota National Guard presence begins to pull out of Webster. Many people from the area would join the National Guard because of that presence, he said.
“After World War II, we had a lot of those members who were really active in the organization,” said Emil Ninke, a dual member of the Webster American Legion and the VFW. “We try to get new members, the younger ones.”
Ninke thinks the new generation of veterans aren’t getting as involved with organizations such as the VFW or American Legion because of time constraints.
“These younger guys have jobs and families to take care of, so I suppose they don’t think they have time,” he said.
But Reiprich pointed out, “It’s not just the younger ones who aren’t signing up any more. There are some older guys in the area who aren’t joining.”
Yet in such cases as Post 156, there simply are no new members to be heard of.
“The post here in Lily, there are no new members to come in,” Lynch said. “We’re pretty much a ghost town.”
Those who meet at Lily have already begun talking about disbanding. Lynch says the district commander has asked them to wait until their membership is under 15.
The number of operating posts has dropped from 14,700 in 2000 to just under 13,800 last year, according to Legion officials.
Eidet says it’s important that people remember the roll a Legion post plays in the community.
“We are always a good sponsor of community activities,” he said. “I feel the Legion is a good asset…we do a lot for the good of a community.”
Sannes added that the Legion “is very generous to community events. We support the community.”