With an aging membership, veteransâ€™ posts all over the country are looking for new ways to attract younger members.
And this effort will help shape the theme for Bostonâ€™s oldest Memorial Day parade when it kicks off in late May 2010 â€“ The Enlisted Men and Women of Dorchester, from Desert Storm to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The keynote speaker at the May observances in Cedar Grove Cemetery will be 23-year-old Savin Hill resident Patrick Callahan, who completed two tours in Iraq and achieved the rank of sergeant in the Marine Corps before his discharge in September.
While all veterans are invited to participate in the parade, it is hoped that this yearâ€™s theme will attract more participation from veterans of recent wars, said Stephen Bickerton, commander of the Old Dorchester Post, which is serving as the host for the parade.
The Old Dorchester Post, for example, today has about 200 members, down from its peak in the 1960s when memberships soared to about 1,300. But from Desert Storm to the present wars, there are only a few younger members at the post, Bickerton said. "Weâ€™re not getting the younger veteran members in as high numbers as years ago. I think they think of us as old timers. We want to get as many people involved to march in the parade this year."
About a half dozen veteransâ€™ posts participate in the Memorial Day parade and each sends a contingent of about 50 people or more to march, he said. "We thought it would be a good idea to honor the younger men and women who have fought in the latter wars," Bickerton said. "Everybody in Dorchester knows somebody who has enlisted in the military."
Callahan, the son of Bob and Katie Callahan, attended Catholic Memorial High School and worked for about 18 months as an electrical apprentice before he joined the Marines. His father, Bob, is a Marine Corps veteran who served during the Vietnam War. "I thought it was the right thing to do," Callahan said of his decision to sign up at the age of 19 in 2005.
Before his deployment to Iraq, he did basic training at Parris Island and then moved on to Camp Geiger in North Carolina. He then trained to be a radio operator at a base in California.
Callahan did two tours in Iraq, the first from December 2006 through January 2008. Then he was back in the U.S. for ten months before returning to the Middle East for another seven months before coming home in July. During both tours he worked as a radio operator.
"The first time I went over, I was part of a personal security detail for a colonel. There were 28 of us who protected one man, the colonel. I was one of the radio operators," Callahan said.
During the second tour he was an assistant to a radio chief in another unit. "By this time, we had passed over a lot of bases to the Iraqis," he said. "We had 40 radio operators working underneath us in that unit."
Callahan said he is honored to be asked to speak.
"Itâ€™s very special, especially for the veterans of Dorchester," he said.
His family is very proud, including his four older sisters, Shannon, Brenna, Devin, and Mackenzie.
Dorchester is well represented in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bickerton said.
"We know there are others like Patrick, like Matt Oâ€™Loughlin, Bobby Walsh, and Rob Flynn who is leaving for Afghanistan in January."
But there are many others that he wants to make certain know about the post and its activities. To encourage younger members, the post tries to find out about recently-discharged veterans. "We send them a letter," Bickerton said. "We also involve ourselves in the community. We reach out the best way we know."
Many of the younger soldiers may not be joining the posts because they are in between deployments, Callahan said.
"The post is definitely a place where everybody goes," Callahan said. "Iâ€™m sure some of the guys are members and have a card. But we donâ€™t do all of the activities that the posts have. Of the guys in my group of friends, Iâ€™m the first one to get out of the service. A lot are still in North Carolina or overseas."
Some of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are joining the McKeon Post, said John Thompson, captain of the Honor Guard and past commander there. The post has about 800 or more members today, he said. When he joined, in 1989, membership was around 1,500. â€œIt has dropped off over the years,â€ said Thompson. â€œA lot of World War II veterans have passed on.â€
While there are younger veterans joining, they appear not be doing so in great numbers. "If you have a 22 or 23-year old Marine Corps veteran who comes and sees guys in their 40s and 50s, there may not be a lot of attraction for them here," Thompson said.
But many events are popular with the membership and the family events draw large numbers, he said. For example, the post recently hosted its Christmas party, which was attended by some 70 members and their families.
The post also sponsors an annual road race and cookouts during the year. And they do charitable work such as visiting the Veterans Hospital. "We always need volunteers," Thompson said.
Frances Murphy, former McKeon Post commander, recalled when the post first opened its doors and he was a young WWII veteran. The demographics were different then, he said. "These posts were built on younger soldiers who were coming out of WWII. They joined the post before they got married. The post became a social center. There were Friday and Saturday night dances. Then a lot of members got married and drifted off."
Charitable events may attract more membership, he said, while pointing out that many posts do not have enough funds to increase the number of activities. "Years ago, the post had a lot of rentals. Thatâ€™s how we made money," Murphy said. "Money was scarce in those days and people were happy to have their wedding at the McKeon Post or the Old Dorchester Post. But people arenâ€™t using the posts anymore as much. They may go to a hall that is more modern, or hire space in a hotel."
Today, many veterans getting out of the service are in the reserves, and are married with children. "They have other commitments," Murphy said.
All of the posts do something for the community, Bickerton said. The Old Dorchester Post, for example, gives money to support local hockey, baseball teams, and civic groups. They also have a scholarship. The post used to have events like bingo and a Friday night dance, but we donâ€™t have the bodies anymore for those events," he said.
To engage the younger veterans, the post needs more information about how to network and find them.
"I think we need more leadership from the national or regional American Legion or VFW," Bickerton said. "When they get their information about people being discharged, how does it get filtered down to the different local organizations. We can take it from there. We donâ€™t know when people are getting out. If we knew, we could contact them."
Bickerton said he joined the post to help support the organization. "What are these buildings going to be if there were not a post? Would they be knocked down and become a parking lot?" he asked.
The older veterans may spend more time at the post during the week. "I am here two or three times a week," Thompson said of the McKeon Post. Still, there is a place for younger veterans and a common experience to share. "The new veterans are going through the same things as the older veterans," Thompson said.
One event is certain to engage veterans, and thatâ€™s the Memorial Day Parade. The McKeon Post has a contingent of about 200 participants, Thompson said.
"We march for those who cannot," he said.