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Vet clubs struggle to draw younger members

Mike Hake stands in the lounge of American Legion post 149 on the afternoon of Monday, Oct. 10. Six years ago at the same time of day, Hake said, the lounge would have been busy.  - Tom James/staff photo
Mike Hake stands in the lounge of American Legion post 149 on the afternoon of Monday, Oct. 10. Six years ago at the same time of day, Hake said, the lounge would have been busy.
— image credit: Tom James/staff photo

In the six years that Mike Hake has been a part of Bremerton’s American Legion Post 149, he’s seen a change.

“Six years ago right now, this place would be packed,” Hake said Monday, at about 4 p.m.  Even within the last few years, groups  of all ages used to make the post’s bar a vibrant social scene. Now, he said, the post is staffed and attended mostly by the old guard, and their numbers are dwindling.

“We’ve cut hours on the lounge so many times that at some point it’s kind of ridiculous,” Hake said.

Hake, a vice commander involved with recruitment at the post, said he couldn’t say whether the post was having trouble attracting young members. Age, he said, isn’t something the post tracks. Still, he said, even if young members are signing up, they aren’t coming in.

“The average age of the members that come in here is between 50 and death,” Hake said.

Pete Cholometes, commander of Bremerton’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 239, said his post is experiencing the same situation.

Veterans organizations across the country have seen declining membership for more than a decade.

East Bremerton recently lost Post 68 to bankruptcy and alleged embezzlement by a former commander.

“The younger members just aren’t coming in like the old camaraderie boys were from World War I up through Vietnam,” Cholometes said.

Cholometes said he thinks the post usually makes a good impression on young veterans and active duty soldiers and sailors once they come inside and see what it’s like. Getting them through the door, Cholometes said, is the hard part, especially with veterans clubs having a reputation as places just to get drunk and gamble.

The Legion post still has a strong membership and meets its membership goals every year, Hake said, but faces difficulty getting even dues-paying members through the door. With online registration, he said, new members don’t ever have to visit the post. That means they never have the opportunity to get involved, he said, or any reason to.

Hake said he also thought tougher DUI laws had something to do with keeping people out of the bar. Even those who come in, he said, are buying less than they used to.

Russell Thayer, a 26-year-old Navy veteran, said he wasn’t an American Legion member primarily because of the cost.

“It’s just one more thing I’d have to add on to monthly [bills],” Thayer said.

Thayer said the club is attractive to him because of the opportunity it offers to socialize with other vets, who share the experience of service. With college debt mounting as he works on getting his career started, Thayer said, joining going to have wait until he has more financial freedom.

Todd Bielawa, 37, a Navy veteran attending Olympic College, said leisure activities are something he simply doesn’t have time for. After getting out of the Navy, Bielawa said, he went straight into college, where the GI Bill requires he be enrolled full-time to receivie full benefits.

“I might be interested,” Bielawa said. “But there’s lots of things that hold my interest, but I don’t have time for them.”

“It’s the nature of the economy. You can’t afford to stand still right now.”

The net result, Hake said, is a post in need of new blood. When one older member dies or stops being able to come in, he said, their friends often stay away as well. And most of the post leadership, Hake said, is also getting older.

“We can’t do it forever,” Hake said.

At the VFW, Cholometes said he is trying to build an awareness that there’s more to do than drink at the club. With meal offers not focused around the bar, including breakfast on the weekends, Cholometes said he’s trying to draw in families, and spread the word that whether members drink or not, the post is a place where people understand what it’s like to be in a war.

Hake said the Legion post has also tried to reach out to younger members with events in the lounge, like opening early for waffle breakfasts on football game days, and by setting up and staffing a table at Olympic College. So far, though, he said new faces tend to show up for an evening or a couple of meetings, and then leave.

Hake said he still thinks the post’s social scene, and the lounge especially, is the post’s best chance for drawing people in. There’s no money in the budget for advertising he said, but the post has some savings and not much in the way of bills, Hake said, so the drop in business hasn’t hurt them yet. If the trend continued, Hake acknowledged, the post might have to close its lounge, and only open for special events.

For now, Hake said, “we make ends meet.”

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