Recruiting crucial to veterans groups’ survival, Besse says
Commander George Besse rang the bell in the 18th-Century converted red schoolhouse that has served as the Ridgefield American Legion Post 78 headquarters since 1948.
He proudly showed a framed photograph — tinted yellow with age — of Everett Ray Seymour, the man Post 78 was named after when it was founded in 1920.
The weight of the rich history of American Legion, and other such veterans organizations, commanded respect.
Ridgefield boasts many veterans organizations, including the American Legion, Marine Corps League, and Veterans of Foreign Affairs. All these organizations provide veterans with a strong support system.
However, to combat the problem of declining memberships, many of these organizations have made recruitment a main focus.
“We are recruiting all the time, through word of mouth and through our connection with the national organization,” Besse said, “if some veterans join American Legion without knowing that there’s a branch in Ridgefield.”
Some have found success with recruitment, while others have stumbled.
The state American Legion organization sets informal membership quotas for each post.
Besse said Ridgefield’s post frequently meets these goals.
The organization has 140 members, just shy of its goal of 141. The all-time high for membership was 151.
Legionnaire Fred Whipple said that most of the members are older and male, and because some pass away each year, Post 78 must recruit every year to sustain its membership levels. Members must have served on federal active duty in the United States armed forces during peacetime or during a war era.
Post 78 supports various veterans organizations in the community, such as Homes for the Brave, Fisher House, Pets for Vets, and Folds of Honor. American Legion members also participate in numerous acts of community service, such as organizing and running the Memorial Day parade, decorating more than 800 veterans’ graves just before Memorial Day, partaking in Flag Day and Veterans Day ceremonies, participating in Veterans in the Classroom, and bringing military band concerts to Ridgefield.
Whipple shared his fond memories of marching in the Memorial Day parade.
“Marching down Main Street during the Memorial Day parade, with thousands of people clapping and cheering and thanking us for our service, is significant, because joining the military means giving away control over the prime years of our life,” he said. “Having the years you sacrificed recognized feels great.”
Marine Corps League
The Ridgefield Marine Corps League (MCL) has enjoyed high membership levels due to its wide reach.
The organization is unique in that it draws people in from all over Fairfield County.
Will Seeley, public information officer and Web sergeant, said that one of the biggest goals of the organization is to have members be easily accessible to other Marines outside the organization. “As of the past couple of years, we’ve had a good influx of new members coming in from around the area, and our membership is going up,” he said. “I think 75 to 85 is our current number of members.”
Ridgefield’s MCL also cultivates an active presence in town through participation in community events.
“Our hope is to be able to reach out and help the community in any we can, like in the annual veterans in the Memorial Day parade,” Seeley said. “It’s also with education; for example, we have veterans that go to the high schools and talk to the students about what it means to be a veteran, and more specifically, what it means to be a Marine.”
Ridgefield’s Post 3052 of Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) is facing a severe problem in membership levels — even after attempts to recruit.
Walter Goodman of the VFW noted that in the mid-20th century, there were around 55 to 60 active members.
Now there are around seven to nine.
“I’m the one who raised the question of decreasing membership levels constantly,” he said. “Our declining membership levels really came into full play eight years ago. We spend quite a bit of time with this particular topic that we haven’t found any magical answer for, but we’re working hard to do what we can do, and we hope that we’ll slowly build the organization back up to what it once was.”
One reason it has been difficult for Post 3052 to increase its membership is the stricter membership requirements. The VFW selects members from participants either in the war or close to the location of the war.
“One of the reasons, and it’s a good one for the world, is that there hadn’t been a big war like World War II, and the other wars that followed were smaller, so we don’t have as big of a selection capacity,” Goodman said.
Post 3052 has brainstormed multiple initiatives to increase accessibility, including moving meeting times from the afternoon to the evenings or weekends and creating banners to display during public functions.
VFW’s efforts have included running an ad in The Press, and sending more than a hundred promotional letters to families in the past. However, Goodman said that only a couple of people responded to those.
“What we haven’t done, which was done decades ago in the 50s and 60s, is knock on doors for potential members. That was the way of recruiting for one of the commanders, and he came up with a number of new members.”
Despite the membership decline, the organization has continued to fully participate in the community.
“We do what we ordinarily do, but in smaller numbers,” Goodman said. “To be truthful, we just haven’t gotten out and asked our friends and neighbors and asked people in our circle, we haven’t done it well enough to bring in any more members.”
He hopes people will recognize the significance of VFW and other veterans organizations.
“I feel honored that I can be in the VFW,” Goodman said. “I was in World War II, I’ve come home with a string of citations and medals, and my experience in World War II is something I’ll never forget. I spend time thanking God that I am alive and living in a beautiful community like Ridgefield. So when I’m with my fellow comrades and we talk sometimes before the meeting starts, there is a strong bond that exists among us. It is very meaningful.”