BANGOR – As veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam pass away the membership of veteran service groups also are disappearing.
The Greater Bangor Area Marine Corps League Detachment number 1151 held a Marine Corps Ball on Saturday to celebrate the organization’s 244th birthday.
During the gathering, the group said goodbye to 31 local members and axillary who have died in the last year by ringing a memorial bell.
It’s a sign of the group’s membership decline, while its mission still remains.
“They care about veterans,” said Barry Robertson, the group’s youngest member at age 60 who served in Desert Storm and also is a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans. “They always take care of the veterans at the VA home here in Bangor. We do a lot to take them out. We don’t leave them behind. We don’t leave anybody behind.”
The American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Marine Corps League, and Veterans of Foreign Wars all serve to better veterans’ lives. These organization fought on Capitol Hill for the creation of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and the G.I. Bill, and more recently the Blue Water Navy Vietnam bill that returns disability eligibility to thousands impacted by Agent Orange.
“They are such strong advocates for veterans benefits, improving caregiving services or making sure health care is available for rural veterans,” Sen. Susan Collins, the senior senator from Maine, said last week.
She added later, “I think those organizations, while I realize they’re shrinking in numbers, still play a very important role.”
“These organizations are serving our interests,” said Steve Hughes, a member of the American Legion in South China, the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Bethel and Disabled American Veterans. “They are the ones looking after increasing our benefits, or making sure that the new generation of veterans are getting the benefits they deserve, making sure we’re taking care of the folks in the veterans’ homes.”
He added later, “For me, being a retired Air Force guy, it gives me that camaraderie and that feeling of belonging that I always had for that nearly 30 years in the Air Force.”
The advocacy work has been going on for decades.
“1966. I joined in Presque Isle, Maine Post 88,” said Harry Rideout, judge advocate for American Legion Post 200 in Hermon. “Why, because I was concerned about the veterans, number one the veterans coming home from Vietnam. I was very much concerned about how they were being treated.”
Rideout hasn’t stopped since, and he continues to advocate for veterans 50 years later. The same could be said of others.
“Our purpose is actually to raise money to help veterans who need help,” said George Bridgham, the membership officer for American Legion Post 12 in Bangor. “We gave away $10,000 last year to help people who have problems – their houses need to be fixed, they need oil, they need groceries and so forth.”
Once the state’s largest American Legion, Hancock Memorial Post 207 in Trenton is now selling its home in hopes of finding a smaller facility.
“We had a membership of almost 500,” said Charles Farley, a former commander for Post 207. “Last I knew, it was a little over 100. But of that 100, around 80 percent are inactive members.”
In Part 2 of Disappearing Vets, scheduled to run Tuesday, WVII/WFVX talks to young veterans about the future, and we’ll look at new veteran organizations and how they are impacting traditional military service groups.