To the average passerby, the shuttered windows and peeling paint of the American Legion Post 32 near the corner of North Fifth Street suggest the bygone institution is clinging to life.
Stepping into the husk of a building, you are greeted by the occasional creak and groan from the almost century-old floor. Barren walls and visible beams catch your eye no matter where you stand. An empty pit in the back room exposes part of the building’s concrete foundation to those who dare brave the occasional rusty nail jutting through the floor.
“We’re not a dead organization,” said Commander Paul Linse, adamantly pushing back against those who equate the building’s dereliction to the status of the group. “The Legion is still [very] active — we’re still making plans.”
An aging institution
For the costly price of one dollar, the Greybull American Legion acquired the property from the Trinity Methodist-Episcopal church in 1935 and turned the building into a quintessential hometown hub for veterans and nonveterans alike.
Every fraternal, social or professional organization had, at one point, utilized Greybull’s post as a meeting place. Its use as everything from dances and banquets, to polling places, and even the occasional overflow classroom contributed to the Legion hall’s three-decade renaissance.
In 2014, the Greybull post received $10,000 from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund while the building was named to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Since then, the old asphalt roof has been replaced with new cedar shingles while new trusses have been installed to improve the integrity of the building.
Now, the Greybull post sits stagnant — costly repairs have hamstrung the re-opening and pushed it back several years. Originally eyeing a 2017 completion date, the project has since been pushed back to 2019 — an ambitious deadline coinciding with the American Legion’s centennial.
Despite the struggle to maintain and restore the building, the Greybull post is in better health than countless other posts throughout the country. Many Legion halls face difficulties brought on by old age, apathy and budget concerns; financial insolvency has led many posts to auction belongings, sell assets or even shutter outright.
In 1992, the American Legion national organization reported a membership of 3.1 million — a number that shrank to less than 2.4 million in 2012. The organization’s dwindling membership numbers may either be directly caused by or the cause of another phenomenon: disappearing Legion halls. Over a decade, the Legion saw a decline in the number of operational posts — down from 14,700 in 2000 to 13,800 in 2013.
Linse said he prides himself on bucking national trends and being what he described as the “envy” of other posts throughout the state. According to him, membership currently hovers around 40 auxiliary members — a figure that has increased over the past decade — with 10 committed members who show up to regular meetings.
Despite their flourishing membership, Linse acknowledges the reality of its graying audience.
“I remember we were immortal; we could not be killed,” Linse said. “We could go into battle and nothing. Now it’s caught up with us — it always does. We’re all mortal.”
For Linse, the solution to the Greybull post’s issues lies with the next generation of veterans.
Per the Legion charter, active-duty soldiers or veterans who served at least one day during a period of wartime are potentially eligible for membership in the Legion. Membership is contingent upon individuals receiving an honorable discharge or is extended to active-duty members serving honorably.
“History is against us,” Linse said with a heavy sigh. “If you think about it, World War I ended in 1919 and World War II began in 1941. That’s a 22-year difference — it’s a generation of people who have different experiences.”
The generational gap pinpoints the American Legion’s underlying problem. Requirements not only limit the membership pool (the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates only 620,000 World War II veterans are alive today, and, in 2013, only 75 percent of Vietnam veterans were estimated to be alive) but also expose something Linse said has always been problematic: the transition between generations of Post members.
“It [always] a different war; it’s always a different experience,” he said. “World War I veterans were much closer to each other — they usually kept units intact, friends would go to war and stay together the whole time.”
According to Linse, these divisions between generations were further exposed by the 15-year gap between World War II and Vietnam veterans.
“World War II veterans readily accepted veterans of the Korean War,” he said. “Our war was completely different — it was a war of ideology vs. a war of national importance. We did not enjoy that universal support from our country, and we didn’t get it when we came home.”
Now, American Legion posts across the country are struggling to grasp members from a new demographic: veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The almost 30-year gap between the end of Vietnam and the large-scale wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have further complicated the dynamics of the group.“
“The young veterans are busy making a living, putting the kids through school — all the things that it takes to raise a family,” Linse said. “They’re just not ready to commit [to the Legion] yet. I think that’s what the World War I veterans saw in World War II — they were young and had all these ideas, but they just weren’t ready to commit themselves to the organization.”
This weekend, Post 32 will not provide a Memorial Day service — the first time in recent memory. While Linse has expressed profound disappointment and remorse that the group cannot perform the service, he has hope that the new generation of veterans will push Post 32 into a new renaissance.
“We’ve got a couple of Iraq veterans in the Post, one of whom is very active,” he said. “Easing into the responsibilities of the Legion post is a gradual process, and I have to remember that [younger members] may have different ideas and they may move quicker than we do.”
“They also have to remember that, if 10 of them join next week, the older members would still outnumber them,” he quipped.