By ANDREW MCGINN
If you want to know what kind of shape Jefferson’s American Legion Post 11 has been in, consider the following.
Larry Blake joined his hometown post 14 years ago, when a state Legion official visited the Iowa Air National Guard’s 133rd Test Squadron in Fort Dodge — where Blake has worked full-time since 1995 — to drum up interest in the largest of veterans service organizations.
“The meetings were kind of spotty,” Blake explained recently. “I could never find out when and where they were meeting.”
Last week, after 14 years as a member of Post 11, Blake got to attend his very first meeting as a Jefferson Legionnaire.
And they elected him post commander.
“To jump straight into the post commander chair is a little daunting,” Blake confessed.
But longtime members and Legion officials alike have high hopes that Blake is the right man to lead the post back from the brink at a time when Greene County is working to make itself an attractive place to live for military veterans.
Back in March, Gov. Terry Branstad rewarded those efforts by designating Greene County as his first Home Base Iowa community.
The state initiative makes it financially worthwhile for veterans to consider moving to Iowa for a job.
Locally, the governor’s plan has served as a bugle call — maybe more of an air-raid siren, actually — for the area’s struggling veterans service organizations.
“Veterans already in the area are encouraged to reactivate their membership in the local VFW and American Legion posts to provide a home away from home for all returning veterans as they transition to civilian life,” local farmer and retired Army captain Jim Andrew implored Monday night during a town hall meeting at the Greene County Community Center to address predictions that as many as 800 new jobs could be coming within the next two years.
Of the two organizations, the Legion is open to more veterans.
Members must have served during a time of war, but that service could have been anywhere in the world.
Jefferson’s Floyd W. Brown Post 11 — named for the Jefferson man killed in action on Nov. 10, 1918, with less than 24 hours to spare in World War I — once had a high of 267 members.
Those ranks have since dwindled to around 71.
Before March, the post hadn’t met in more than two years.
And until last week, the post was without a commander since the December passing of Bill Ecklund, a veteran of World War II, at age 90.
“The older generations have carried the banner for a lot of years,” Blake, 54, said. “We need the younger guys to pick up the baton.”
“We can learn a lot from the older guys,” he added, “but we have to take the burden off of them.”
It’s easy to assume that posts across the country are in similar predicaments.
Around Greene County, membership in the Legion has fallen from an all-time high of 563 members to 156.
Grand Junction’s Post 28 is down to just six members from a former high of 90.
It appears Scranton’s Legion post, which once had 61 members, is now altogether defunct.
“It used to be the American Legion was the place to go,” said Ed Rohner, a Carroll County Vietnam veteran who now serves as state vice commander.
As a whole, the Legion is just five years from celebrating the centennial of its 1919 founding.
But for every Scranton, there’s a Dedham, a town about 13 miles south of Carroll.
At last count, Dedham’s American Legion Post 20 had 191 members — which is pretty astonishing considering that Dedham as a town only has a population of 266.
“That’s because Dedham was very aggressive in going out to get new members,” Rohner said.
Post activity is the key, he said.
Even Rohner’s home post in Breda (pop. 483) has 111 members.
The Legion post in Arcadia (pop. 484) counts 150 members.
“The future of the whole thing lays with the Iraq and Afghani veterans,” Rohner said. “Us Vietnam guys, we’re not quitting, but we need to be able to approach those folks. It’s a lot more difficult to get to those folks than it was to us.”
It’s hoped that Blake, a 1978 graduate of Jefferson High School, can more easily relate to the current generation.
For one, he’s arguably the first Legion officer in Jefferson to have played video games in uniform.
An Air Force veteran who manned Titan II nuclear missiles deep under the Arizona desert during the Cold War, Blake admittedly passed the time 60 feet below ground by playing an Atari.
No, it’s not exactly an Xbox or a PlayStation, but it’s a lot closer to what passes for fun these days than a previous generation’s gin rummy.
Blake also still wears the uniform.
“I always thought of the American Legion and VFW as something you did after you got out of the military,” he said.
When that state Legion official addressed his Guard squadron 14 years ago, Blake learned otherwise.
“It was just a logical outgrowth of serving in the military,” he said.
A master sergeant in the Air Guard’s Fort Dodge-based 133rd Test Squadron — a unique unit that tests and evaluates new and emerging communications and reconnaissance technology — Blake has about five years left to serve.
“At 60, it’s mandatory retirement,” he said. “For the regular enlisted guy, 60 is it.”
By military standards, he’s the old guy.
Keeping up with the Air Force’s intensified fitness standards is, at age 54, admittedly trying.
“You should only have to run if something’s chasing you,” Blake joked.
But being 54 also makes him a considerably young Legionnaire.
“At 54, I was one of the young guys in the room,” Blake said.
He’s pledged to give Post 11 at least one year as commander, and wants the post to have a more visible presence in the community.
The post even has two women members now.
Korean War-era Air Force veteran Dallas Schrader, a 40-year member of Jefferson’s Post 11 who serves as co-chairman of the membership committee, is optimistic.
“I think he’ll get things rolling,” Schrader said.
American Legion membership
Greene County posts
Jefferson: 71 current members (down from all-time high of 267)
Grand Junction: 6 members (from 90)
Rippey: 16 members (from 76)
Churdan: 54 members (from 88)
Paton: 9 members (from 42)
Other posts in the region
Denison: 149 members (from 643)
Carroll: 266 members (from 715)
Boone: 275 members (from 923)
Perry: 78 members (from 327)
Guthrie Center: 138 members (from 255)