By Joseph Hamrick
For many years, the American Legion had been integral in the lives of United States veterans, serving as a thriving community where veterans could congregate, share stories and form new friendships.
But as veterans of World War II die, and membership declines, the legion is looking for ways to court newer veterans in an effort to remain vibrant and relevant in the 21st century.
At the forefront of this movement locally is Gene Toohey, adjutant and finance officer for Otho Morgan Post 17 in Greenville.
Toohey grew up a member of the Sons of the American Legion, with his father a veteran, and said a passion for the legion and the city drove him to reshape Post 17.
“When I came back, I realized the legion had lost a lot in the community,” he said after he returned to Greenville from his service in the military. “We had a changing-out of some of the leaders and brough in fresher blood and fresher perspectives. We’re in exciting times now.”
Formed in 1919 to help provide benefits for returning veterans from World War I, the American Legion has been the driving force for veterans’ benefits. They established what is now the Montgomery GI Bill, and campaigned in Washington to save tuition assistance programs for returning Afghanistan and Iraq veterans.
As Afghanistan and Iraq veterans return home looking for help adjusting to a civilian environment, Toohey said the legion is beginning to back away from the stereotypical “bar and smoke” atmosphere and to re-engage the family atmosphere and youth programs it once was known for.
The legion is reaching out by sending local high school juniors from Hunt County to Austin as part of an educational progam called Boys State which allows boys to meet with Texas legislators and senators to learn how the government structure works.
“I am a product of Boys State,” he said, adding that Boys State has produced such alumni as former president Bill Clinton, and current Fox Business Network news anchor Lou Dobbs. “We pay for boys to stay at the University of Texas campus and meet with great leaders and mentors.”
Last year the legion sent one boy from Greenville High School, two from Greenville Christian School and one from Caddo Mills High School.
Currently membership sits at 293 members, which is down a few hundred from its high of more than 500 members years ago.
But Toohey said things are looking up as of late. A push for younger members also brings an increase in technology.
The legion recently created a new website, www.greenvillelegion.com, and is also a sponsor for the Greenville High School baseball and softball teams, the Greenville YMCA; works with the Hunt County Special Olympics; and continues its dedication to the Wounded Warrior Program and scholarship opportunities for local students.
Toohey said, that along with these programs for the youth, the legion also hosts Friday night dinners and Saturday afternoon hamburgers at their location on 4509 Moulton Street.
“We’re trying to get across to those [younger] vets,” he said. “We are going to bring the post into the 21st century. We’re not 100 percent, but we’ve made great advances.”