A legion post that’s on its last legs in Mattituck

06/08/2015 6:00 AM |
Master Sgt. LeRoy Heyliger salutes a wreath placed at the Mattituck war memorial on Memorial Day. Mr. Heyliger, a former member of Mattituck Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 11117, said he and other members were encouraged to join the Southold American Legion when the the Mattituck VFW post folded two years ago. He said he didn’t know why they weren’t encouraged to join the Mattituck Legion. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Master Sgt. LeRoy Heyliger salutes a wreath placed at the Mattituck war memorial on Memorial Day. Mr. Heyliger, a former member of Mattituck Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 11117, said he and other members were encouraged to join the Southold American Legion when the the Mattituck VFW post folded two years ago. He said he didn’t know why they weren’t encouraged to join the Mattituck Legion. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Members of Mattituck American Legion Post No. 861 no longer march in parades. Their numbers have gotten so low that they don’t meet in person anymore either.

“We used to have a meeting the first Tuesday of every month, but since there’s so few members coming out, we’ve pretty much resorted to meetings through phone calls,” said Paul Majeski, the Legion post’s commander. 

The group has only four or five active members left, Mr. Majeski said.

And it’s close to going extinct. With 20 dues-paying members, the Mattituck post can remain active, though it’s dangerously near the state minimum. According to the Constitution of the American Legion Department of New York bylaws, the minimum is 15 members.

“All our members are moving away or getting too old to participate in any of the things,” he said. “It’s really not a thing we decided to do; we just don’t have the manpower to do anything anymore.”

While the group’s numbers are dwindling, there is no plan to close the post or merge with another.

“As long as there are members and as long as elderly members want to stay connected, then we’ll keep doing paperwork to make it happen for them,” Mr. Majeski said.

The Legion’s Wickham Avenue building was also home to Mattituck Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 11117, which disbanded two years ago.

The New York Times reported in 2013 that American Legion membership nationwide had at that point fallen 11 percent since 2000, with fewer than 2.4 million members in 2012. The number of operating posts had dropped from 14,700 posts in 2000 to under 13,800 in 2013.

Matthew Herndon, deputy director of the membership division at national headquarters, said the New York Times figures were not unusual, however, as Legion membership typically fluctuates between 2.3 and 2.7 million members. As of May 29, nationwide membership was 2.3 million. Mr. Herndon said American Legion membership peaked coming out of World War II, with 3.3 million veterans registered.

In August 2014, military.com noted that the VFW was having similar problems. Its membership had decreased from 2.1 million in 1992, an all-time high, to 1.3 million in 2014. Additionally, the average member was reported to be 70 years old.

“Well, I knew that eventually the VFW here would have to disband because of a lack of membership,” said LeRoy Heyliger, a retired U.S. Air Force airman who was a member of the old Mattituck VFW post. “Of course, it was mostly World War II vets and a lot had passed away and some had moved.”

Once the Mattituck VFW post closed, he said, remaining VFW members were encouraged to transfer their membership to the Southold American Legion.

“Normally, when you have a post that has kinda fallen by the wayside membership-wise — that is not that active and is looking for help — they go through the chain of command, which is the district and the state headquarters,” said Mr. Herndon. “On the national level, we help as well when the state invites us to assist. We put out press releases so people who normally don’t come to the posts can learn about it.”

According to Mr. Herndon, an effective approach to building participation is educating and reinvigorating the community by visiting local schools. Each state also has a list of expired memberships they can review to encourage those people to rejoin or transfer their membership to a post that needs more Legionnaires.

The Mattituck post is currently looking for new members by sending letters to recent veterans. Mr. Majeski said if they get enough response they’ll “be back in active business.”

With the VFW gone and the Legion’s activities slowed to a crawl, the Mattituck Fire District has been renting the main floor of the building for training classes.

Mr. Majeski said that when the Legion was still meeting, its members used the attic.

While both veterans groups shared the building, the two groups are not interchangeable.

“It was two separate organizations but most events [the Legion and the VFW] did work together on,” said Mr. Majeski. “The building is owned by a corporation called the Veterans of Mattituck Corporation; it’s not owned by either of us. We all worked together for the best of the Mattituck vets.”

The building saw its last use by the Legion last summer, about a year after its last event, a flag retirement ceremony held on Flag Day two summers ago.

Mr. Majeski expressed his desire to reactivate the Mattituck by touching on the importance of the organization, adding that anyone interested in getting involved could contact the Legion at [email protected]

“It’s really hard for vets to talk to people who have never served in the military or it’s really hard for a veteran to relate to people who don’t understand what they’re talking about,” said Mr. Majeski. “Vets groups like American Legion give veterans a chance to sit down and discuss what they went through.

“It helps to know you’re not only one upset at what you’ve seen and done.”

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