By: Pat Smith, Department Adjutant
Way back in 1976, then National Commander Bill Rodgers called about 20 young Vietnam veterans together to discuss ways to sign up this new class of young veterans. It was an extreme brainstorming session. Most of the national staff at that time was either WWII or Korean vets with a few Vietnam vets sprinkled in for good measure. Commander Bill Rodgers was a WWII Vet. He called this gathering of young Turks the, “Task Force on Membership for the Future.” The underlying question was how to entice these new veterans to join the Legion.
The event lasted two days. Food and drink were plentiful. It was a great time to form bonds of friendship with our fellow vets. It was a free-for-all discussion. No subject was taboo. But for those of us in attendance it was also an education.
We learned the real value of The American Legion to our fellow vets, our families and our communities. By the end of the weekend we knew the importance of bringing the Vietnam vets into the organization to continue the good work started by that special group of veterans, the WWI vets.
Obviously there was no simple answer. At least we didn’t think so. How do we get the Vietnam veterans to join? We threw so many ideas on the table our heads were swimming. The lesson learned was that people join organizations for their reasons, not ours.
So the idea that stuck was to “send them a letter.” A simple idea! Send a letter to lists of people that may contain veterans. Explain to them how the American Legion can benefit them and their families. Tell them the value of belonging to a group of veterans where they can continue their comradeship they had while they wore the uniform. At the bottom of the letter, ask them to join. Really? Would this work?
Guess what? It did work, beyond all expectations. Since the first mailing went out in 1982 that simple idea has signed up almost 3.5 million veterans in The American Legion. It has signed up more members than we have on the rolls today. It was wildly successful.
Fast forward to today. What if we brought 20 or so OEF/OIF veterans together in a room and asked them the same question? How do we entice young veterans to join The American Legion? I am sure everything would be the same. Those young veterans would leave with their heads swimming. They would know the value the American Legion could bring to them, their families and their communities. They would make a commitment to their fellow veterans by asking them to join. The difference would be they would not recommend sending them a letter. To use the vernacular of the day, “That’s so 20th Century.”
I can envision that their answer would be, “Send them a text,” or “do you have that in an electronic version?”
So that is where we are going with our communications with these young veterans. They are concerned about their families, about finding jobs, about their medical care, about a whole host of problems related to their service. The American Legion can be there to assist them but we need to learn their language. When we are able to articulate our value system to them, and they realize it is their same value system, they will join and will become our future.
So if texting, twitter, Facebook, social networking are not in your vernacular find someone who knows this language and learn it. The future of this great organization depends on you. Take the challenge.