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Vern Massie is 6th District Commander of the Minnesota American Legion. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Legion looks for younger members

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By Sarah Smith

It was Mike Swanson’s death that gave Legion members pause.

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Their beloved leader had passed away at the relatively young age of 70 after years of service to the Park Rapids veterans group.

How to replace Swanson, who died of cancer, and to ensure the legacy he built would survive, were problems the Legion has faced before. Swanson’s death brought it all to the forefront.

The Legion has struggled to recruit members since the Vietnam War and many of those members are aging, although they consider 70 to be middle-aged.

Swanson died March 2. He was a veteran before Vietnam, yet became a lifetime member of the American Legion and the soul of the organization.

As the Legion celebrates its 95th birthday this year, Vern Massie reflected on his job to recruit those younger service members into the fold.

He took office June 1, 2013, as 6th District Commander. In that role he oversees 70 Legion posts.

He will visit each post to try to boost membership in his huge district. It follows the original Congressional District, which has shrunk over time, but the Legion district remains large.

He’s looking for vets from conflicts in Panama, the Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq.

“How to talk to a young vet” is an art form in itself, Massie said, aside from, We’d like you to join the Legion.”

He’s given his speech a dozen times to a dozen posts, touting the fact that the Legion nationally has 3 million members, but could always use more,

“The Legion put millions of dollars into activities that help young folks grow into responsible adults through scholarships, Legion baseball, Boys and Girls State, Boy and Girl Scouts and other community-based activities,” Massie’s speech indicates.

The four pillars of the volunteer organization are defense, vets, youth and patriotism.

There is no CEO of any American Legion post, Massie points out. It’s like a large family, rife with the problems large families sometimes have, but with the spirit of a family – they stick together through thick and thin.

Massie, a member for 37 years, said it’s important to bridge the gap of conflicts and ages of members.

Young people just returning from conflict always have an ear to listen to them. “Break Some Ruts” is how Massie described his program.

“It takes time to make changes but if you don’t start you can’t make any changes, or finish, so we started,” he said.

Not all of the posts have clubs like Park Rapids “but everyone is active and important in their community,” he said.

One project this year is obtaining portraits of the five branches of service depicting vets through the ages. The portraits are being painted by artist Charles Kapsner, 8-by-10 feet large. The will be permanently displayed at the Committal Hall at the State Veterans Cemetery at Little Falls.

Massie said local vets have the impetus of losing a soldier like Mike Swanson as incentive to reach out.

It’s what Mike would have done.

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Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers Hubbard County, courts and breaking news.

(218) 732-3364
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