MONTPELIER — The maxim “old soldiers never die; they simply fade away” has growing significance for members of the military veterans’ organization The American Legion, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
The Legion was founded in Paris on March 15, 1919, to help care for soldiers returning from World War I. As the years passed, so too have many of the Legion’s members, down from a peak of 3.3 million after the end of World War II to 2.3 million in 2013.
The same is true for the membership of The American Legion Post 3 in Montpelier, but that didn’t stop members from celebrating the anniversary with all the bells and whistles and a dinner and dance at its Main Street facility on Saturday.
At its height, Post 3 boasted 500 members and currently has about 240, Post 3 Commander Dick Harlow said. Statewide, there are about 10,000 members.
“What’s happening is all the old ones are dying off, and we can’t get younger people involved,” said Harlow, pointing to the digital era as eroding civic traditions. “It’s a sign of the times.”
If the Legion’s numbers are dwindling, it wasn’t that evident at Post 3’s celebration on Saturday. The ground floor bar and reception room quickly filled up with members, family and supporters before the party moved upstairs for dinner. The Legion’s membership has also expanded thanks to the addition of the Women’s Auxiliary, which honors women veterans, and the Sons of the American Legion, which permits membership to men of all ages whose parents or grandparents served in the U.S. military.
Harlow is a 17-year veteran who served with the Vermont National Guard from 1955 to 1963, and is serving his fourth year as post commander. Harlow also managed Aubuchon Hardware in Montpelier for 50 years and is known locally as “Mr. Aubuchon.”
Harlow proudly pointed out old photographs and musical instruments of the post’s former drum and bugle corps that numbered 50-strong and won many state and regional contests between 1928 and the mid-1940s.
There were also pictures of the post’s baseball team, which still plays in state and regional leagues; former color guards and the soon-to-be commissioned nuclear-attack submarine, USS Vermont, the third Navy vessel to bear the state’s name.
There were also many awards and certificates for the post’s work on the “four pillars of service” the Legion champions: veterans affairs and rehabilitation; national security, Americanism, and children and youth.
Post 3 members and its color guard make regular appearances throughout the year at military observances and other major public holidays, such as Independence Day. But it is the post’s service to veterans and their families, war widows and widowers, and its community programs that are the true focus and mission of the veterans’ group.
“When the First World War ended, all these troops were coming home, and they had nothing and no place to go ... so, we honored these fellows and gave them a place,” Harlow said.
The Legion was also responsible for designing the GI Bill, legislation approved by Congress in 1944 that helped send veterans to college and join job training programs, and helped to establish the Veterans Administration.
Also attending was Legion State Commander David Woodward, who traveled from Bennington for the event. Woodward served in the U.S. Army with the 82nd Airborne from 1984 to 1988 and saw action in Grenada.
Woodward pointed to the Legion’s efforts to sponsor Boy Scouts and support student scholarships. The Legion also works with the VA Medical Center in White River Junction and five community-based outreach centers that serve as regional clinics for veterans. The Legion also supported a measure signed by President Donald Trump earlier this month to create a federal task force to prevent veteran suicides.
“I’ve seen what this organization has done for children and others and really believe in what we do,” Woodward said.
Others attending the event were Ken Wheeler, of North Montpelier, who served 10 years with the Marines, including in Guam and Korea, and 18 years with the Vermont National Guard; and Marty Lemnah, of St. Albans, the post’s national executive committee woman member, who served in Vietnam and married former marine Master Sgt. Richard Lemnah, the only Vermonter to die in the bombing of the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983.