Although American Legion Post 171 sold its building to the Crystal Lake Park District 12 years ago, it doesn’t mean its members aren't as active as they once were in veteran and community support.
Post Cmdr. Tom Aellig said membership numbers today reflect not only those of participants aging and moving away, but a lack of younger veterans joining.
“A lot of people don’t really know we’re alive and well,” he said. “My goal next year is to get a few younger veterans to take over.”
Many of today’s members — veterans from World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam — have retired to nursing homes, moved out of state or have fallen ill. They may not be able to attend chapter meetings, Aellig said, but they pay their membership dues and are considered active.
The post continues to support veterans and to act as an advocate for veteran’s concerns on local, state and national levels while contributing to the community in a variety of ways.
The post supports Crystal Lake Boy Scout Troop 165, which chartered it when it was re-established 10 years ago, and Venturing Crew 165.
It continues to offer annual college scholarships to students and to make annual financial contributions to Manteno Veteran’s Home in Illinois, which cares for disabled veterans.
It attends about 25 military funerals each year, drawing on outside sources when needed for gun salutes and flag folding.
The means for providing these services has changed however. Without a building to hold fundraisers in, the post relies on invested proceeds from the sale of the building for many of its community projects.
Aellig said the Woodstock Street building was sold after real estate taxes and insurance became too high for the membership to support. It is now known as Park Place Banquet Facility. The post still holds meetings at the building.
William Chandler Pearson, a Medal of Honor recipient, started the Crystal Lake post in 1919, and the post took possession of the property in 1946.
Aellig said the reasons for fewer younger veterans joining the post today are the same his generation experienced after the Vietnam War.
That generation knew about the post, but was busy raising families and working. There wasn’t much time to participate in the American Legion.
Post 171 membership swelled to about 500 in the mid 1990s, when Vietnam veterans began participating — eventually decreasing to the 168 members today.
Participation in the American Legion is one way for veterans to secure their future, said Terry Woodburn, adjunct for the American Legion’s Illinois headquarters.
As the American Legion is responsible for lobbying the Veteran’s Administration and making sure it lives up to its promises, the greater the number of members, the greater the chance of being heard by those that decide the fate of veterans’ benefits.
“There are fewer and fewer veterans in Congress; fewer and fewer veterans in the Senate,” he said. “It’s tough for the Senate and the representatives to sympathize with veterans issues when they don’t really know what they’re going through.”
Overall, membership in Illinois experienced growth, he said. There are 800 posts and 105,000 members in the state. Some of that growth is contributed to younger veterans who Woodburn says join, realizing the need for veterans care and service.
Woodburn said membership rates vary, depending on what is going on in areas where individual posts are located. Some posts have closed, some have consolidated and others are going strong.
“We’re looking at membership as positive. We have lost members over the years, yeah, but we’ve also experienced growth over some of the years too,” he said. “So it’s kind of an up-and-down thing.”
Community contributions from American Legion posts cannot be underestimated.
Louis Pukelis, Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs spokesman, said facilities like Manteno rely on contributions from posts as well as from other community groups and individuals to help fund programs outside of the basic necessities provided by the VA.
“We’re very fortunate and appreciative of the funds that are donated,” he said. “We appreciate Post 171 for their help.”
Post 171 provides scholarship money for summer camp for the Boy Scouts, said Troop 165 Scoutmaster Robert Dalton.
More than that, affiliation with the post gives the Scouts and crewing members a positive role model.
“We’re very proud of that relationship. They symbolize everything boys should be proud of,” he said.
Scouts help out the post during Memorial Day by placing flags throughout the city’s veteran cemeteries. The post is represented in parades the Scouts participate in by carrying its flag.
Korean War veteran James B. Dyson said he has noticed a shift in the public’s perception toward the post after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
A member of Post 171 for the past 16 years, Dyson said before 9/11, it was unusual to see anyone acknowledge the American flag when the post displayed it during a parade.
Today, people not only stand and recognize the flag with hand over heart, but interact with post members as well.
“Since then people thank the veterans for their sacrifice in keeping America safe. I have strangers come up to me and say ‘thank you’ and shake my hand,” he said.
Perhaps that appreciation will translate into renewed interest in Post 171.