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Local American Legion posts grapple with changing demographics as Memorial Day approaches

Most nights at the Dewey Lowman Post 109 American Legion building, Bill Tabeling is sitting at his spot at the bar, right behind the beer tap and holding an icy glass.

The 92-year-old World War II veteran was coxswain of a boat that stormed Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day for the U.S. Navy. These days, 18 years after he joined the legion, he’s content to drink a beer at the bar and watch younger members play shuffleboard.

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It was his wife’s idea to initially join, he said, and now there are two main things that keep him coming back since she died in 2015.

“Coors Light, and I got a bunch of friends. I know just about everybody by their first name, but no last names,” Tabeling said. “It’s no fun sitting at home by yourself drinking beer, watching ‘Gunsmoke’ every day.”

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Since he started coming here, he said, maybe a dozen of his buddies from around the bar have died — or “transferred to Post Everlasting” in American Legion lingo.

Now, Tabeling is one of the remaining few WWII veterans who regularly show up at the legion post off Sulphur Springs Road in Arbutus. Other members say just last year around Memorial Day, there were about four regulars who were WWII vets.

Until mid-May, Tabeling was one of two. But at a May 15 meeting, legionnaires learned that Wes Corbin, also a WWII veteran, had been hospitalized and would be moving into Brightview Senior Living, making it unlikely he’ll continue to be a regular at the bar and post events.

Shrinking numbers

As Memorial Day 2018 approaches, Post 109 is facing a problem that the legion has been dealing with on a national level: a decline in membership, in large part due to the dying off of veterans of WWII, Korea and Vietnam, and a struggle to recruit younger members.

Membership has been on a slow decline at Post 109, according to Commander Alicia Knecht, who served as an intelligence analyst stationed in Korea and Fort Hood, Texas from 1999 to 2002. She was elected to lead the post in 2016.

She said she has seen the slow transition of leadership at the Lowman Post from the earlier wars to now veterans of her generation who were active during the Gulf War or the “war on terror.”

But, she said, getting other members of her generation to join the legion — and then become active members — can be tricky.

“It’s tough because people, they’ve got younger kids and they’ve got a full-time job,” Knecht said. “It’s hard for them to find time to come down here and try to figure out where they could fit in, what jobs they could do.”

Alicia Knecht, 34, is the newest commander of Dewey Lowman Post 109 of the American Legion. She is the second woman to hold the position in the Post's 83 years.

In 2008, the post’s membership was around 1,400 but declined to around 1,100 by 2016. According to the latest numbers collected by the American Legion Department of Maryland, the Dewey Lowman Post had 815 members as of May 11, 2018.

Post 109’s numbers are about 97 percent of the membership goal set for them by the department, which wanted to see 840 members. Other posts in the region, like the Jackson & Johnson Post 263 in Catonsville, and Reisterstown Post 116, are 94 percent to goal and 90 percent to goal, respectively.

Nationally, membership in the American Legion has hovered around 2 million for the past 5 years, according to Billy Johnson, membership director for the organization. Around 10 years ago, membership was at 2.6 million, he said.

Johnson said the organization is “working through methods or mechanisms” to attract a younger generation and women, too.

Johnson said the legion has two groups it needs to look at: Those who are between 18 and 36 years old, who he called millennials, and an older group of people, from 36 to 62 years old.

“We have got to take a look at how to target and message those groups differently,” Johnson said, “but be able to focus on those specific needs that they have.”

It can also be a reputational issue. Ivory Harris, secretary of the Jackson & Johnson Memorial Post 263’s auxiliary unit in Catonsville, 38, said some other veterans who she served with give her a hard time for being active in the legion.

“When people hear ‘American legion,’ they think old people,” Harris said. “I’m 38, even my battle buddies, I get joked on, because they’re like, ‘oh you’re hanging at the old bar.’”

Since members pay dues, a shrinking pool of members means a shrinking revenue pool. But that does not mean that Post 109 is any less dedicated to being a resource for veterans and providing services in the community.

According to Knecht, most of the time that service is simply being a nexus for veterans to come, congregate and be with others who have spent time in the military and know what that experience is like.

“Just having the camaraderie, you’re not going to see that a lot of other places,” she said. “You have these old guys sitting around the bar with a wealth of knowledge and they know what it's like [to serve].”

As May comes to a close, the post is preparing for Memorial Day, May 28.

At 8 a.m. that day, the flags will rise on the looping driveway that leads from Sulphur Spring to the legion post.

At 10:30 a.m., leadership from the American Legion, the American Legion Auxiliary and the Sons of the American Legion will gather at the flagpole at the intersection of East Drive and Sulphur Springs Road, where they and local elected officials will give speeches on some of the themes surrounding Memorial Day: gratefulness and remembrance.

“I think it’s important to impart that on the community that Memorial Day is not the beginning of summer, it’s not the unofficial beginning of summer,” Knecht said. “It actually means something. We try to get the word out about our ceremony, make it known that you can have your cookouts and everything, but make it known that this is still an important day for veterans and for the families that get left behind.”

The post’s Original 27 Flags group will be making an appearance, too, showcasing every flag that has represented the United States since the union formed.

After the brief ceremony, the legion will move back to the post for its annual Post Everlasting Service.

At the service, post chaplain Tonya Green will read through the names of the men and women from the post who have died since last Memorial Day.

This year, it’s 16 names.

“It’s not easy, I don’t want to say it’s easy,” Green said. “But it’s actually a sense of comfort,” because she’s been interacting with these families and can help them keep the memories of their loved ones alive.

Post 109 is just one of several in the county, and others are observing Memorial Day, too. The Jackson & Johnson Memorial Post 263, on Winters Lane in Catonsville, will be having a similar event.

Members of Jackson & Johnson Memorial Post 263 will gather for a Memorial Day service, scheduled for 11 a.m. at the post. Harris said the service will last about 30 minutes.

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Afterward, from about 3 to 6 p.m., there’s a cookout, which people from the community are welcome to attend, she said.

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For Harris, who served active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, pausing to observe Memorial Day has a personal significance.

“It means a lot to me. With me being currently still in the service, I have lost a lot of my battle buddies,” she said. “This is very dear to me when it does come around each year. They may not be here physically, but they’re definitely here with us.”

‘Just another day’

But Tabeling, the WWII veteran, doesn’t care for all the fuss around Memorial Day.

“It’s just another day. Same as my birthday, just another day,” he said. “I don’t celebrate stuff like that, really.”

He said he and his late wife, Claire, never went to “anything special” because they were too busy with working. They wanted to work, buy a house and raise a family — which is why it wasn’t until later in life that they joined the American Legion.

Sometimes, Tabeling said, he’ll go out to eat at a restaurant, alone. When he goes to ask for the check, the waitress will point to another table and say that they’ve already picked up the tab.

The gesture is, of course, appreciated, but it doesn’t always sit well with Tabeling.

“What makes me mad is they’re sneaky about it,” he said. “But if they sat here, and let me thank them, and then I bumped into them and treat them the next time...I’d rather talk to them.”

One day, Tabeling will transfer to Post Everlasting and Dewey Lowman Post 109 may find itself with, for the first time in its history, no veterans from WWI and WWII.

As Tabeling put it, “You never know when your luck is going to run out.”

While the generational makeup of legion membership may change, Knecht said she thinks the mission and the spirit will remain more or less the same.

“Once you've reached a certain age, and you've worked your butt off around here, then yeah, it’s time to pass the torch, it's time to do something else,” she said.

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