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Facing Declining Numbers, American Legion Adapts

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FAYETTEVILLE — The American Legion is the largest veterans organization in the world, but with World War II veterans dying at about 1,100 a day, the group now faces one of its largest challenges since being chartered in 1919. In Fayetteville, and across the nation, efforts are underway to keep membership strong.

World War II veteran Clyde Brown has been a member of the American Legion since 1945.

"My biggest joy of American Legion is not particularly helping myself but helping others," said Brown.

At Fayetteville's Post 202, only 10 percent of the members are World War II veterans.

Ray Smith, the commander of the national American Legion, said that the shrinking membership means recruiting new members is more important now than ever before.

"We'd be getting weaker and weaker, and we wouldn't have the clout we have. Congress listens to numbers," said Brown.

After a couple of years of declining membership, the American Legion is once again gaining ground by enlisting younger veterans like Desert Storm vet Jon Cone, who can carry on the mission with a modern vision.

"The World War II vets couldn't voice their opinions, show their beliefs, show their behaviors to the whole world as we can now through technology," said Cone.

The hope is that a new set of soldiers can continue to mentor the leaders of tomorrow through youth programs like American Legion baseball, while at the same time becoming staunch advocates for the soldiers of yesterday.

The American Legion hopes to top 2.8 million members this year. That's about 10,000 more members than last year, but still down from 3 million in 1989. They hope to reach that number again by 2004.