The American Legion's Next Generation
One of the original 13 colonies, Virginia is a state filled with cities and towns established at the dawn of America. Few places in the state capture Virginia?s historical identity better than Alexandria's Old Town section. It was the home of George Washington and, for a time, Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Old Town is also home to the iconic Gadsby's Tavern on Cameron Street, where Thomas Jefferson entertained guests and U.S. presidents later dined. When the tavern building fell into disrepair, it was American Legion Post 24 that stepped up, taking control of the structure and eventually returning it to the city.
Post 24 still meets at Gadsby's, a building that conjures a blend of colonial spirit and Beltway nostalgia. Amid all this history, there's a new kind of energy permeating Post 24, thanks to a wave of post-9/11 veterans who are members there. Of the nearly 700 Legionnaires on Post 24's roster, nearly 250 have served in uniform since Sept. 11, 2001. Half of the post's executive committee falls into that demographic. What brought them in? A change in culture that gave the younger veterans positions of responsibility at the post.
"You hear all the time, 'Wait, it's the World War II guys' turn," says 25-year-old Jesse Stevens, a Marine Corps veteran and member of Post 24's executive board. "It goes all the way up to Korea, Vietnam and the first Gulf War. If you keep making people wait, you're never going to get new leaders. And because people aren't made to wait here, I think that's why you've got the younger, active mix here that you do. People here want to help. They want to volunteer. And when they find out they can be in the Legion, they want to join. When they can contribute, they want to stay."
Bill Aramony, 60, a Navy veteran and Post 24's commander, says the process of moving younger veterans into leadership is part of the post's business plan.
"Our goal is to get from downstairs to upstairs," he said, referring to the difference between being a social member in the club room and an active member involved in programs. "We do push really hard for volunteers. We want to get these guys involved right away so that they develop a sense of belonging. That's easy when you focus on values, because I think the values between the younger guys and the older guys are the same.
"We try to bridge the gap and create leaders out of both the older and younger guys. You can't recruit these young guys into the Legion and then tell them they can't do anything for a few years. You have to give them some responsibility. When we do that for them, the Legion honestly grows on them."
Younger Post 24 veterans work alongside their older counterparts when they visit comrades in assisted-living facilities, organize blood drives, help with community cleanups and participate in Alexandria's George Washington Birthday Parade. The post also offers a healthy mix of American Legion youth programs such as Boys State, Legion Baseball and Junior Law Cadets.
Jim Glassman, Post 24's adjutant and a 40-year Legion member -- and the Department of Virginia's 2012 Legionnaire of the Year -- says the post's older members quickly bought into the idea of putting post-9/11 veterans in leadership positions. "There was no resistance," Glassman said. "They saw that these younger guys wanted to work, wanted to volunteer. When they join, we ask what they're interested in doing. Then you take it from there."
For Stevens, that sometimes includes helping younger veterans find employment. "The American Legion family is a 4-million-person network," he said. ?Think of those connections and think of that kind of clout. That's a lot of people with a lot of the same values. That's people in all walks of life and in every kind of business. There are people in corporations, in the federal sector. And they're also plugged into their local communities. That is one of the best job networks out there."
Jason Dean, 23, and Austen Nickell, 22, are both active-duty Air Force personnel at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in nearby D.C. As two of Post 24's younger members, they see the Legion as full of opportunities: first, as a way to volunteer in their communities, and second, as a way to establish connections in the business world once they're discharged.
"I like the fact that I was treated like an adult and given respect the first time I walked in the post," Nickell says. "They immediately gave me an opportunity to prove myself. It's very fulfilling to be able to give back."
Dean's father served in the military, and when he passed away, a Georgia Legion post performed funeral honors and paid Dean's dues for his first year. When he returned to the D.C. area, Dean looked up the Legion online and found Post 24.
"I didn't know what to expect," Dean says. "But my first night here, they really tried to get me involved. It wasn't pushy, but they let me know they could use me. And they also were here to help. Some of these guys were in the military for 20, 30 years. There's no better place to get career advice for the military."
While the dynamic at Post 24 may seem unique to some, at least one person says this is how it should be Legion-wide. Warden Foley, a World War II Navy veteran, has been a member of the Legion for 65 of his 86 years.
"We work these younger guys into committees, and they contribute," Foley says. "That's how the Legion operates. That's how it was when I joined. That's how it needs to be."