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Southern Indiana veteran organizations keep active in the community

The Evening News and The Tribune - 1/7/2024

Jan. 7—SOUTHERN INDIANA — Local veteran organizations have seen their ups and downs with membership over the years, but they still remain active inward and outward.

Bill Thien is the former commander of New Albany Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3281 and a former commander-in-chief for the national organization. However, he is still active in the local post.

Thien's uncles and father were all veterans themselves and had membership at the VFW, and he inevitably joined in the early 1970s.

"While I was still in service, my dad paid my dues for the first two years. After that, he told me I had to start paying them," he said.

Thien has continued to be active in the organization because of its community service work throughout the area.

In 2023, Thien said they were able to donate around $18,000 to various projects and organizations including the Salvation Army, Special Olympics, Hazelwood Middle School, Shop with a Cop and Hoosier Burn Camp.

He said they also have youth programs like Veteran in the Classroom and scholarship contests. They also help provide financial help to veterans and their families who may be struggling.

Thien said membership levels have been a difficulty depending on the current situation. At their height, Thien said they had about 1,050 dues-paying members. Now, they have around 356.

He cites that young veterans, and young people in general, appear to be busier than ever before, with both parents typically having to work. He said they could always use more volunteers to help with their service projects.

"They don't have the time to participate," he said.

Army veteran Linda Duncan, the post commander for American Legion Post 204 in Sellersburg, has a slightly different perspective concerning the organization she leads.

Duncan said she has been a member of the post for about 12 or 13 years, and has been the commander for the past three years. She's the first female commander in the post's 93 years.

She said she heard about the post from a friend who recommended she take part in it.

"It just kind of ... snowballed into different things," she said.

Duncan said the post, on top of serving lunch Monday through Friday, also hosts holiday dinners and events. Both the Legion and VFW also have games, drawings, dances and other events to bring together members and their families. She said this past holiday season, the post spent about $6,000 on Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets for local veterans.

Duncan said membership at the Legion post has increased recently. The total membership, which includes legionnaires, auxiliary members and Sons of the American Legion, is around 800. She said legionnaire members increased from around 400 to 522 across the past year.

After the community center in Sellersburg closed last year, those who consistently used it then began using the Legion post building for their events and meetings, including Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

Duncan said the national Legion organization has been more aggressive in increasing membership numbers, and cites their own increase to word of mouth efforts as more people use their space. Duncan said a local World War II veteran came in consistently to have dinner at the Legion, but didn't join until last year.

As someone who has worked in the national VFW organization, Thien said membership numbers are important because when leadership visits Washington D.C. to talk with politicians about legislative issues like improving veteran benefits, memberships show these politicians the number of people they represent, exhibiting the extent of their influence.

Duncan said the most challenging part of the post is people realizing the importance of these groups through the camaraderie that the members share with each other as veterans and being able to share stories along with information regarding veteran benefits and health care.

"The camaraderie is important," Thien said.

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