As large Cowlitz County veteran population ages, service organizations look to younger generations to carry on traditions | Local

Every Remembrance Day since Sara Hutchinson was a freshman in high school, she has performed “Taps” at the Kalama Memorial Day celebration hosted by the city’s Foreign War Veterans and the American Legion.

The close connection made Hutchinson an easy recruit for both organizations when the army combat medic left the service in 2008 after five years.

When her son was born nine years ago, she, like many veterans who work full-time and have young families, began to attend fewer meetings – a trend she says is affecting member organizations. in general.

“I think all nonprofits are losing members because the younger generations are not joining them,” Hutchinson said.

At 38, Hutchinson is one of the youngest local veterans. According to the US Census, approximately 57% of Cowlitz County veterans are over 65.

As the military ages, local veterans organizations such as the American Legion and VFW strive to maintain services to help the region’s large veteran population. The U.S. census reports that about 11% of the county’s population are veterans, compared to about 7% nationwide.

Kalama struggles

For a few years in the early 1980s, the Kalama American Legion had only two active members: Brian LaRoy and the late Howard Jaeger.

LaRoy said the couple are determined to carry on local traditions, such as the Memorial Day service at Kalama IOOF Cemetery. Last year’s event ran out of two people to fire a 21-gun salute. Still, LaRoy continues to recruit.

KALAMA – Locals and those with local roots went to Kalama IOOF cemetery on Monday to remember the fallen soldiers.

“We are fighting because not many people participate, with the Internet and television,” he said. “We are trying to keep going for the veterans and the community. “

LaRoy said that when he joined the Legion in 1968 almost every small town in the country had a post – back when people weren’t traveling as much and instant communication wasn’t possible.

Randy Hahn – a founding member of the Kalama VFW in 1988 – said veterans organizations were a way to socialize and help each other before social media.

The group once got together to buy an RV for a member who suffered a stroke and lost his home. When veterans need help filing for veterans benefits, they come to the Kalama VFW building.

Today, Hahn and LaRoy said each organization has about 40 members.

Nearly half of the Kalama American Legion live in Woodland, said LaRoy, where there is no local. Even with members out of town, age affects the overall count.

“If we gain ground, the tides of time take it away from us,” he said.

Services Center

The way people communicate may have changed over time, but Hahn said the demand for veterans’ services remains.

“The important thing is the need for veterans and the community,” he said. “It never went away.”

According to the US census, approximately 25% of Cowlitz County veterans suffer from a service-related injury.

The Cowlitz County Veterans Service Center in Longview has served nearly 6,000 local veterans since the center opened in 2015, according to founding volunteer Bill Bangs, who served in the military for 20 years.

As leaders of the Cowlitz County Service Center, Army Veterans William Bangs and Larry Geiger exemplify the organization’s motto: “Veterans, it …

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At the Fir Street center, all-volunteer staff help veterans determine if they are eligible for services such as rent assistance, disability compensation, health care and funeral reimbursement. If veterans cannot find their discharge papers to apply for benefits, volunteers can help them.

Bangs said he noticed over time that local veterans needed better access to help, so he helped establish the center and joined the local chapter of American disabled veterans.

Center secretary Vickie Carnahan said honoring those who have served often comes with age. Carnahan attends the Longview Memorial Park Memorial Day Ceremony each year hosted by groups such as the Longview American Legion and the Mount St. Helens Detachment 889 of the Marine Corps League. She hopes the tradition continues.

Last year’s event was canceled to protect attendees from the airborne coronavirus.

“Times are changing,” she says. “Your upcoming younger generation, just hope they look at it with the respect we all have now. “

Kelso rejuvenates

Dan Halverson and a group of veteran motorcyclists teamed up to bring the struggling Kelso American Legion to life in 2018 by forming a subgroup of the organization called the American Legion Riders.

The Kelso American Legion was formed a century ago, but by 2018 the membership had fallen to around eight.

Today, the organization has grown to 107, he said. Riders alone represent almost half of the members.

The recruiting, Halverson said, comes when people see the flag waving group’s motorcycle pass through town. Others show interest when members volunteer for local veterans funeral services.

“People really want to be a part of something good,” he said. “They see us rolling flags and honoring veterans on a daily basis. It just attracts people.

The group plans to convert the Legion building from a bar to a quieter site where veterans can drink coffee and play cribbage, he said.

Bernie DeGross

World War II US Navy veteran Bernie DeGross, 98, poses for a portrait outside his Longview home on Wednesday. DeGross joined his local American Legion organization upon his return from service in 1946 and continues to make financial contributions.

Courtney talak

“Home Away From Home”

In 1973, the Longview American Legion was a “pretty busy nightlife spot,” according to Ken Smith.

“It was one of the best places to dance in the county,” he said.

A night of dancing turned into a life for the Navy veteran, when he met a local girl named Wilma and married her three months later.

“And I’m still here,” said the 72-year-old.

Smith joined the American Legion just a year after his four-year tour of Vietnam, but didn’t start volunteering regularly until years later, after her children grew up and after Wilma passed away after 45 years of service. wedding.

Without his wife, Smith turned to the Legion, where he runs the kitchen, bar, and zippers. As pandemic restrictions lift, he looks forward to the return of the dances and “the biggest BINGO crowd around.”

Pat Dunlap, a member of the Longview American Legion, said the organization is an anchor for local veterans, “essentially their home away from home.”

Bernard DeGross of Longview has been a member of the national organization for 75 years. He said he joined the Legion a year after leaving his six-year tour with the Navy in World War II because he “supports them”. DeGross enlisted in the Army with a friend of Mossyrock’s and piloted a destroyer warship which was converted into a seaplane tender. He said his crew had been attacked in the Dutch port of Alaska.

At 98, DeGross said he was “proud to have served,” but didn’t know any WWII veterans.

Even as members age, Dunlap said the organization has more participants today than it joined 16 years ago. About 30 new members have joined in the past year, he said. He attributed the growth to services provided by the organization, such as referrals to the Cowlitz County Veterans Service Center and transportation to the VA Hospital in Vancouver.

This fall, the group will bring the Healing Wall – a 375-foot-wide traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to town.

In the years to come, Dunlap hopes that these services and events will continue.

“I want him to continue serving the community,” he said. “I want it to continue to be a veterans organization from now on and into the future.”

Brian LaRoy

Brian LaRoy, U.S. Legion Kalama finance officer and U.S. Army veteran, stands Tuesday at the door of a fireworks booth to benefit the Foreign Wars Veterans Organization of Kalama.

Courtney talak

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