ENID, Okla. — The American Legion was founded 100 years ago today in Paris, France, in the wake of the First World War to benefit that and future generations of veterans.
Enid’s American Legion Argonne Post 4 was formed less than two months later, on May 7, 1919, and has since served the community and its veterans. But, as it begins its centennial year, the local post, like many veterans organizations, faces challenges of a dwindling membership base and ensuing fiscal challenges.
The post’s first home was in a wood frame structure downtown, near the current gazebo on the Garfield County Court House lawn. Later, the Legion moved into Convention Hall, now a part of Stride Bank Center, and later two different downtown locations before its current home. In 1969, the post moved into the former dry-cleaning plant at 121 W. Oak.
Over the last 100 years, Post 4 Commander Robert Keister said the post has worked to advance the Legion’s four pillars: supporting veterans, supporting children and youth programs, advocating for national security and promoting patriotism.
Those efforts have included local coordination of the Boys State and Girls State programs for 11 area high schools, supporting and providing medals to the Enid High School Air Force Junior ROTC program, participating in the annual Enid Veterans Day Parade, placing flags on veterans’ graves for Memorial Day and supporting local nonprofit projects such as Tour de Trykes.
The post also has been a social hub over the years, and still hosts a Wednesday night dance each week. Featuring live music by “The Branders,” the dance is open to the public, 7-10 p.m., for $7 at the door.
Keister said the post also contributes to American Legion advocacy at the state and federal levels, including recent efforts to expand benefits for Agent Orange exposure to Blue Water Navy veterans of the Vietnam War.
Karl Girty, Argonne Post 4 chaplain, said the 100th anniversary of the American Legion evokes a sense of responsibility to continue those advocacy and community service efforts.
“It means there’s a lot of lineage we need to uphold, and continue the message the Legion stands for,” Girty said. “There are a lot of veterans who came before us who did a lot of great work for veterans, and that’s what the Legion is for, is serving veterans.”
Keister said the anniversary recalls the sense of duty Legion members have to continue their service long after they hang up the uniform.
“Even though I’m discharged from the military, I’m still serving my country,” he said, “and I always will be serving my country.”
But, Keister said, keeping that mission alive has become harder over the years, as the Legion’s membership has aged and declined.
In the 1960s Argonne Post 4 boasted more than 1,200 members. Today, the post has 319 members, and few of them are younger than the Vietnam generation. Just since the first of the year, 12 of the post’s members have died: three Vietnam veterans, three from Korea and six World War II veterans.
As the numbers have declined, so have dues and the availability of volunteers to conduct fundraising.
Keister was blunt in his assessment of the post’s predicament. “We’re in a critical situation,” he said.
The post’s second floor is closed off to the public, the elevator is inoperable, the roof needs work and several heat and air units need to be repaired. Keister said the post barely has enough money now for utilities and insurance costs, and the post recently started closing its doors every day of the week except Wednesday to cut down on utilities costs. Service assistance with things like veterans’ disability claims still is available on other weekdays, by appointment.
But, Legion members aren’t giving up. Renovations are underway in the former post bar. It will become a small event space, adding to the banquet hall, which already is available to rent for weddings, parties and other social events.
Keister said the Legion also is launching a five-year plan to recruit new members, especially from among younger veterans of the post-9/11 era.
The plan relies on word-of-mouth and community involvement to meet and build rapport with younger veterans who may not be prone to joining a veterans organization. Keister said the post also will be working to re-enroll inactive members, and to educate active duty airmen at Vance Air Force Base about Legion programs that can provide temporary financial assistance and a social support network for deployed service members’ families.
Keister said all of those efforts are important to continuing the legacy and work of the American Legion. But, what’s more important, he said, is reaching a younger generation of veterans who may need help accessing benefits, and who may feel cut off from their support network.
According to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about 20 veterans die by suicide each day. Keister wants the Legion to be there to reach more veterans and prevent those deaths, in this and future generations.
“I feel my job is to get them to realize we are a family,” Keister said. “We’re in it together. We served together, and we’re going to stick together. We want all these younger veterans to know we’re here for them when they need help.”
American Legion Argonne Post 4 meets at 121 W. Oak, 7 p.m. the third Monday of each month. For more information on the post, call (580) 540-8920, or contact Girty at (580) 603-9963.
Neal writes for the Enid News & Eagle, a CNHI News Service publication.