BRATTLEBORO—Growing up in Central Indiana, Dale Barnett was a middling high school student and a middling athlete. But in the summer of 1969, he got the chance to attend Boys State, the American Legion’s participatory educational program that teaches high schoolers about the process of government at the state, local, and federal levels.
“The Legion changed my life,” he told a gathering at Brattleboro American Legion 5 on Sunday morning. “That’s the only way I got into the U.S. Military Academy. It wasn’t my grades or my athletic ability. It was the Legion recognizing that I had leadership potential.”
Now a resident of Douglasville, Ga., Barnett was recently elected national commander of the American Legion. With 2.2 million members, it is the nation’s largest veteran’s organization.
He was visiting town as part of a swing through New England Legion posts to get to know members and find out their concerns for the organization.
A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, Barnett served as an Army infantry officer from 1974 to 1996, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. A veteran of the Persian Gulf War, he was a recipient of the Bronze Star, the Legion of Merit, the Army Commendation Medal, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
After leaving the Army, he taught high school social studies and coached basketball, baseball, and cross-country. He has been involved in the American Legion at every level.
Post 5 Commander Don Long was among the members greeting Barnett.
Long, a Korean War veteran, said Post 5’s membership stands at 776, which might sound like a lot. But the ranks have thinned by about half the number of members in the 1960s, when some of the World War I veterans who founded Post 5 were still on the rolls and the World War II and Korean War-era veterans were in their late 30s to mid-40s.
Now the ranks of the veterans of World War II and Korea are dwindling. The Vietnam War veterans, initially given the cold shoulder by the older vets, are in their 60s now and fill many of the leadership positions. And there are few veterans of the first Gulf War and even fewer from the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“We’re trying desperately to get the younger folks in,” said Long.
That is a concern for Barnett. One of the initiatives he has launched is what he calls Awareness Walks. He helped lead the first such event in Manchester, N.H., on Sept. 12. He said it not only served as a fundraiser for the American Legion National Emergency Fund, which provides relief for Legionnaires and their families affected by natural disasters, but it also raises awareness about the Legion itself.
“We don’t tell people enough about what we do,” Barnett said. “The way you’re going to grow your post is get out and spread the good word and tell our story. Tell the young vets what we can do for them and their families.”
One of the major roles of the American Legion is as an advocate for veterans in Congress. It lobbies for better pay and benefits for current military members, better health-care and pensions for retired personnel, and for a strong national defense.
He said the popular image of the Legion and other veterans organizations as smoke-filled drinking clubs is not going to get today’s veteran to sign up.
“You’ve got to adapt,” he said. “There’s no magic formula, but I’m going to do my best.”