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American Legion hopes to bridge generation gap between veterans

POSTED: November 11, 2012 12:05 a.m.

When Dave Dellinger returned home from Vietnam in 1965, he did not get the sort of warm welcome veterans today receive.

“As soon as I got back, they flew us into San Francisco. I left the carrier, which was still at sea, and as soon as we got to the airport, they said ‘Change out of your uniform,’” Dellinger said. “There were a lot of protests at that time.”

Dellinger is the commander of the American Legion Post No. 7 in Gainesville and served in the military for eight years, in Vietnam from November 1964 to May 1965.

“When we came home, we were called baby killers and things like that. Most Vietnam veterans didn’t even mention that they were veterans for years, because the public perception was against us,” he said.

Veteran Brandon Loggins, 24, of Dahlonega, was deployed in Afghanistan from June 2009 to April 2010. He had a different kind of welcome home.

“It was pretty warm. We were flown into Atlanta, and we were greeted with the USO, and they gave us hugs, cell phones to call family with,” Loggins said.

While the public’s perception of veterans has changed 180 degrees, Dellinger said, membership numbers in the Legion have gone the opposite direction. There used to be more than 1,200 Legion members. Today, there are fewer than 490, he said.

“Of those, probably around 25 participate anymore,” Dellinger said. “The rest just pay their dues every year.”

Many factors have contributed to the declining membership and aging leadership, he said.

“Years ago, when the Legion was run by World War II people, it was huge. We had bingo at least two nights a week. We had a restaurant out there. We had a swimming pool. We had slot machines. We had poker. The money flowed,” Dellinger said. “Back during prohibition, only the membership clubs could serve alcohol, and so we were one of the very few in the Hall County area.”

But as Gainesville grew and laws changed, so did the Legion, he said.

“They did away with being able to do the poker and the slot machines. After prohibition, there were more and more bars opened up, and that did away with a lot of our patrons coming,” he said.

Dellinger stressed how important it is that new, young veterans join the Legion.

“We’re all getting older. We have got to have some younger people to start passing it on to,” he said. “Our biggest problem is trying to figure out exactly what we can do to appeal to these younger veterans, to get them involved.”

Loggins isn’t a Legion member himself — at least not yet.

“I’m getting ready to graduate college. That’s really probably the biggest reason why I didn’t join, just cause it was time consuming with college and everything I was doing then,” Loggins said. “But now I’m going to have time to work it in my schedule and be totally committed to it.”

And Dellinger understands that the lives of new veterans can often make joining time-prohibitive.

“They’re younger, and they’re involved in more things. And trying to get them to add one more thing is kind of difficult,” Dellinger said. “A lot of them are married with little kids and all that, where most of us in the Legion are retired. Our kids are grown, we have more free time to devote to this.”

As one incentive to join, Dellinger said any new members will have their $35 membership fee waived the first year.

For Loggins, joining the Legion could mean reclaiming a sense of camaraderie he has lost.

“When you’re deployed, that’s your family. You get closer to those guys than you do your actual family. So, then we come home and everyone splits and does their own thing, you lose that camaraderie really quick,” Loggins said.

Dellinger echoed that sentiment.

“One word, camaraderie, is probably the reason that most veterans join a veterans group, because we had it when we were in the service,” Dellinger said. “There’s adverse conditions and you’re covering each other’s back, and then you lose that. So you join in an organization like this and that brings some of it back.”

And Dellinger stressed the more concrete ways the Legion can assist veterans.

“Anything the veterans need — we get calls about somebody needs help with rent, or their car broke down, or sometimes you hear from a homeless person that needs something. We pay electric bills for people,” he said.

And with age, comes wisdom, he said.

“We’ve gone a through a lot of these things, and we have the experience and knowledge to help them with problems coming up, kind of a mentorship. Like getting in the VA, doing those things. We know the ins and outs of that stuff.”

And as Loggins knows, veterans face many challenges upon returning. Finding employment is a big one.

“The only thing you do for 15 months is effectively learn how to kill people, really,” he said. “And then people ask you, ‘What are your special skills?’ and you say ‘Well, I’m pretty good with a gun.’”

Dellinger pointed out that assisting veterans in finding jobs is a service the Legion can provide.

Dellinger is anxious for new veterans to join and give time to the Legion. But he has nothing but gratitude for their service. He credits the newer veterans with changing a public perception that was vindictive 40 years ago.

“These guys are the reason for it. From the Gulf War on, there’s a complete change of feeling about veterans,” he said.

“It has really changed for all veterans. In December, our Vietnam veterans group is going to be in the Christmas parade. We have a trailer with flags and our banners on it. Some walk in front with our banner, some ride in the trailer. People cheer, and for 40 years, we got nothing,” he said. “It means a lot to us.”

This Veterans Day, residents will have several opportunities to honor all veterans.

Monday, the day after, the Legion is sponsoring a service at Lakewood Baptist Church that starts at 11 a.m. and will feature a posting and retiring of the colors by Riverside Military Academy.

For Loggins, the feeling of being one of the honorees on Veterans Day is still slightly overwhelming.

“It’s kind of surreal. When I got back I was only 22, and you know, you think of veterans, you think of Vietnam, Korea, World War II and you don’t think of me, really, or I don’t,” Loggins said. “So it’s kind of surreal, it’s kind of humbling.”


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