It's a typical afternoon at American Legion Post 3 in Montpelier. A small group of veterans hang out at the bar watching TV and talking. Post Commander Dick Harlow shows off pictures of the glory days of Post 3's drum and bugle corps from the 1930s and 1950s.
"I'm on the color guard and I'm one of the oldest color guards-- I'm 75 years old. Most of our color guard is guys in their 60s," Harlow said.
Like the color guard, the absence of younger faces at Post 3 is part of a national decline in membership which dropped 11 percent in the last decade. In many parts of the country posts are closing down. Vermont is trying to buck that trend. In fact, it's among the top three states in the country when it comes to membership recruitment-- some 40 percent of eligible veterans compared to a national average of just 12 percent.
Local officials say there's a lot that can be learned from the Vermont experience.
"We're such a rural community. You know your neighbors. You know the people in your town. You can identify who just went and served," said Linda Perham of the American Legion of Vermont.
Perham says today's Legion serves the same role that it has for previous generations of veterans. "It doesn't matter if you're a World War II veteran or a young man or woman coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan, if you love your community and you love other veterans and you want to help support that, certainly there's no difference with the groups."
The American Legion was chartered by Congress in 1919 right after World War I. Its mission-- to help wartime veterans, their families and communities. Membership peaked just after WW II. But today, with increasing numbers of World War II and Korean War-era veterans dying every day, the national organization is trying to rebrand itself.
Perham and other Legionnaires say they often find themselves fighting to overcome the outdated perception that the local post is no more than a drinking hole for grizzled vets.
"The American Legion is more than a building, it's actively going out into the schools and actively going out and supporting a veteran at a nursing home or making sure that the kids' local soccer team has equipment," Perham said.
The Legion in Vermont last year contributed hundreds of thousands to everything from scholarships to Boy Scouts and baseball.
In addition to door-to-door recruitment, the Montpelier Post has taken to more aggressive signage.
Dick Harlow: We picked up probably four or five local veterans that we signed up.
Reporter Alexei Rubenstein: They just saw the sign.
Dick Harlow: They just saw the sign and said, my God, I've never been in here.
Others say the lag in membership is cyclical, with studies showing the average Legionnaire joining up to 14 years after they've finished active service.
"After Vietnam went part of the way through, those veterans started to join and that's what the bulk of the people is and where maybe that could happen again," said Frank Killay, the former state commander.
"The younger veterans will carry that legacy on with community activism by being members of the Legion. They just need to know we want them and we need them," Perham said.
The American Legion fighting to remain relevant for today's veterans.
In addition to membership for eligible wartime veterans, the Legion also encompasses the groups the American Legion Auxiliary and the Sons of the American Legion.
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