Mike McDermott of Homer, the New York state commander of the American Legion, laid a wreath Wednesday at a veterans memorial in Cortland. But really, he was in town to listen.
Since September, McDermott has been going to every county and district in the state to lay wreaths at war memorials, a duty for the commander, and to listen to the Legionnaires’ concerns — concerns from the Vietnam veterans about exposure to Agent Orange, concerns about Veterans Affairs benefits, and concerns from the newest veterans about finding a job.
As a Vietnam War veteran himself — he served from 1964 to 1967 in the Navy because he “didn’t want to walk” — respect was the biggest concern for his era.
“Vietnam veterans weren’t really accepted when they returned. Now people are learning that they were just trying to do their job during the war,” he said. “We just wanted to feel that we were a part of it.”
A big issue for the American Legion now is convincing young veterans to join, he said. In fact, he didn’t join until 1980.
Younger veterans are busier than their older, and often retired, counterparts. Additionally, he said younger veterans have a view of the American Legion as a place for veterans to drink and smoke.
“We’re now trying to make it youth-oriented,” he said.
McDermott, a former Homer mayor who served 13 years as commander of Post 465 in Homer and four years as the Cortland County commander, wants Legion posts to play newer music, have ATMs and video games to gain younger veterans. He’s been saying that since he began the statewide post in July.
Department President Linda S. Tome of the American Legion Auxiliary Department of New York shared McDermott’s concerns.
“They think of it (the American Legion) as old people,” Tome said. Young people weren’t replacing the older veterans who were dying off.
Still, high school programs and American Legion baseball have been used to get high school students involved with the American Legion, Tome said.
That, they said, might be a way to keep the Legion going into its second century.
“This is the 100-year anniversary,” McDermott said. “We want to keep it going for another 100 years.”