The American Legion expects to draw thousands of veterans to Baltimore this week for its national convention, where officials plan to show what the organization can offer the newest generation of potential members: the veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Michael Hjelmstad, a Marine veteran and American Legion member in Hollywood, Calif., who will be traveling to Baltimore, said the organization is trying to move away from the image of bars haunted by "old veterans telling stories." (Even though he says his own post has an "amazing" Art Deco bar.)


The gathering at the Baltimore Convention Center is the American Legion's 97th annual convention, but it's the first since the conclusion of combat operations in Afghanistan last year brought an end to America's two long wars there and in Iraq.

That leaves the American Legion with a question it has faced several times throughout its history: Will the latest cohort of veterans join up?

Legion spokesman Henry Howard expects them to sign up, eventually. He describes a Wall Street Journal article during the 1970s that predicted the death of the organization as it struggled to attract Vietnam veterans. Now they're the largest group of members.

"Joining a volunteer organization wasn't at the top of their list" in the years immediately after the war, Howard said, but over time they began to gravitate toward the group.

Howard said the organization is already experiencing strong membership growth among people who were in the military in the past decade.

Ten thousand Legion members are expected to attend the convention, which runs through the weekend and into next week. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, his predecessor, Chuck Hagel, and Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald are scheduled to appear.

When the convention's formal program begins Tuesday, delegates will honor troops who served during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and young veterans will have prominent roles in the proceedings.

Noah Galloway, an Army veteran who lost two limbs in an improvised bomb attack in Iraq and appeared on the cover of Men's Health and was a contestant on "Dancing with the Stars," will serve as master of ceremonies. Ryan M. Pitts, an Army veteran who won the Medal of Honor for fighting against overwhelming odds in Afghanistan, is scheduled to speak.

The American Legion has used its political influence to fight for causes relevant to the newest veterans, pushing for educational benefits and helping returning troops successfully integrate back into civilian life. The organization will hold a jobs fair and offer entrepreneurship classes during the convention. The push to appeal to new members is playing out at American Legion posts across the country.

Hjelmstad, 42, said he tells younger veterans thinking about joining the organization that it's a place where they'll be welcomed and understood.

He said he joined the American Legion to build on the sense of tradition and camaraderie he felt in the Marines, and has come to value the diverse friendships he has made through his post.

"I come here and hang out with people I would never hang out with," he said. "I wouldn't have a chance to cross their paths."