I’m not a veteran, and I didn’t serve in the military, but one my neighbors, Ron Wolfram, did. Ron is a member of the American Legion Post 447 and serves as the adjutant at the American Legion post.
I spoke with him and Bob Roa, the post commander, because I knew very little about the Legion and veterans organizations and wanted to learn more.
Today, there are two major veterans organizations, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Legion. As service organizations they’ve held an important place in American history. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), formed as a fraternal organization for Union veterans after the Civil War, preceded both of them. The GAR was organized in 1866. It grew to include hundreds of posts across the U.S. By 1885, there were almost a half million members.
The GAR held annual conventions, called encampments, in various cities. One of the largest was held in 1896 and brought 150,000 Civil War veterans to St. Paul. Every hotel was filled in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, and thousands of veterans camped east of Dale Street near Como Park. The parade was the largest ever, with over 24,000 veterans marching through downtown. This was the peak of the GAR. As members grew old and passed away, it slowly withered. It was officially disbanded in 1956 when its last surviving member died.
The VFW came together following the Spanish American War in 1899. It currently has about 1.3 million members and is open to any active or honorably discharged officer or enlisted person who is a U.S. citizen and served in “any foreign war, insurrection or expedition.” Post 6208 is here in Prior Lake.
Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the president’s eldest son, was largely responsible for the organization of the American Legion following the signing of the World War l Armistice. Roosevelt was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army in the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France. Roosevelt and other officers were concerned about the morale of troops left in France at the end of the war and the issues and difficulties they would face on return home. A preliminary organizational meeting was called in Paris in February 1919 followed by an organizational meeting in Paris in March of the same year and another in St. Louis, Mo. in May. At the St. Louis meeting, Minneapolis was selected as the site of the founding convention Nov. 10-12, 1919, one year after the signing of the Armistice. The Legion was given its national charter by Congress the same year.
Since its formation, the Legion has supported veterans’ interests before Congress and other governmental bodies. It lobbied for, and won, additional compensation for World War I veterans with the passage of the Veterans Compensation Act in 1924 and earlier was largely responsible for the creation of the Veterans Bureau, now the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, in 1921. It wrote the original draft of the Veterans Readjustment Act, the GI Bill that became law in 1944, underwriting the future for thousands of returning soldiers and laying a foundation for the prosperity of the 1950s and the American middle class.
Today, the Legion has about 2.5 million members nationwide, with membership open to honorably discharged veterans and current personnel of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Air Force who served a minimum of one day of active duty during World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, Granada and Panama, the Persian Gulf War, and the current war on Global terrorism.
Prior Lake Post 447 has about 100 members and has been in existence for 26 years. It is a sponsor of Boy’s State; a weeklong program that promotes a hands on experience learning about the workings of local and state government. It, also, supports Future Leaders of Scott County. The group meets on the third Monday of the month at the Prior Lake VFW building.
Membership in all veterans organizations has been in slow decline for many years, because, without the draft and universal service, veterans, as a percentage of the population, are much fewer in number. It’s more a question of demographics and an aging veteran population than the good work that the organizations do.
The Legion and the VFW are a part of American history and American values. Let’s hope what they represent in our lives stays with us forever.