In these days of instantaneous digital communication, American Legion post commanders from across Nassau County said that word of mouth is the most effective method to get more military veterans involved in the organization.
The American Legion was founded in 1919, when Congress chartered it as a patriotic veterans organization. It offers an array of services to veterans, including personal assistance, cash grants, donated goods, disaster relief, labor, networking, volunteerism and advocacy.
There are 52 legion posts across the county, with roughly 4,000 members. This includes the 97-year-old Lawrence Cedarhurst Post 339, a 34-member unit commanded by Cedarhurst resident Syd Mandelbaum.
When Mandelbaum, 69, joined the American Legion 16 years ago, one thing he emphasized was working with local school districts on events such as Veterans Day commemorations, which he said helps increase membership. “With having been an educator, I realized that we needed to be involved with our local school districts,” said Mandelbaum, Post 339’s commander for the past five years and a former professor. “Not only to educate the students by bringing in veterans to talk, but it can also serve as a way to reach out to students’ parents who may be veterans.”
Post 339 also takes part in the Lawrence-Cedarhurst Memorial Day parade as well as Veterans Day ceremonies and Sept. 11 memorials in Cedarhurst. “We also participate in these events to encourage community members to join and make a difference in their community,” Mandelbaum said. “That is the foundation of what American Legion is.”
The effort to increase membership was given a boost last July when President Trump signed the Legion Act into law. The measure allows military veterans who served any time from 1941 to the present to be eligible to join their local posts — not just those who were deployed during wars. Al Ficalora, of Oceanside, the current county American Legion commander, said that the organization wants to spread the word about the act to veterans across the county.
“Before the Legion Act, veterans had to have served during World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War or Operation Desert Storm to be eligible to join a post,” Ficalora, a 73-year-old Army veteran, explained. “In the past, I had to turn away some veterans from joining because they didn’t fulfill the requirements. Now officials have said that this will allow 4 million veterans nationwide to join the American Legion.”
Mandelbaum added that his post, and posts across the county, are now targeting a specific age group. “Before the Legion Act was passed, veterans that served from 1952 to 1959 were not eligible to join American Legion,” he said. “These men are in their 70s and 80s now — that is a huge cohort we would like to go after. Most of them are retired, so they’ll be able to make time for their legions.”
According to Joseph Scarola of Rockville Centre Post 303, another barrier to increasing membership, particularly with younger veterans, is their busy lives. “When I first joined my post in 1992, I wasn’t very active, since I was working on Wall Street and getting home at 8 p.m. every night,” Scarola said. “I was just paying the dues for the post. It was in 2005, when I was nearing retirement, that I started becoming more actively involved with Post 303.”
Ficalora said he has thought of a countywide initiative that he believes would increase membership. “For the veterans who served in Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, a lot of them will show up to one meeting and not be seen again,” he said. “My initiative would be for us to pay their first year of dues, but they have to attend at least 10 meetings in the year.” Ficalora noted that the county American Legion usually meets twice a month, and membership is $40 per year.
Having people attend multiple meetings is imperative, he said. “This is how you meet people,” he added. “I didn’t know anybody when I first started going. Once I was there a couple of times, I started making friends and then started bringing people there.”
Pat Alesia, of Valley Stream, will succeed Ficalora as county commander in June. Alesia noted that he was aiming to get commitments from younger veterans, no matter how much time they have to give. “It’s important that we just get commitments from the younger veterans, even if they’re not able to attend all the meetings,” the 72-year-old Alesia said. “I probably won’t be here in 25 years, but they will be, when they presumably have more time on their hands to carry on the organization.”
Scarola acknowledged that the American Legion needs to do a better job of informing its communities about post events. “One of the things the American Legion does poorly is pat themselves on the back,” he said. “We don’t talk about ourselves enough. We need to let people know what we’re doing to honor our veterans.”
Lawrence Cedarhurst Post 339 meets on the second Sunday of every month at the Lawrence Yacht & Country Club, 101 Causeway in Lawrence, at 9:30 a.m. For more information, call Mandelbaum at (877) 691-3663.