Southold American Legion post looks ahead with new commander

When Charles Sanders — longtime post commander of Southold’s American Legion’s Griswold-Terry-Glover Post 803 — announced recently that he would step down, there was no infighting among members to succeed him. 

In fact, there weren’t even any takers. 

“I wasn’t surprised at all,” said Mr. Sanders, 54, “because I know how much of a commitment it is. But because of my own personal commitments I knew I had to [step down] regardless of what would transpire. I knew the guys would be able to pick up the slack somehow.” 

Charles Sanders

Instead of seeking a permanent successor, Mr. Sanders proposed that volunteers take the helm as commander for three-month stints — hoping that someone would take to the temporary role and agree to serve as post commander for a year, two years or more. 

The hesitancy among members to fill the top position at Post 803 encapsulates two key challenges facing American Legion posts nationwide: declining membership and a shortage of new, younger members.

The first struggle seems inevitable, as hundreds of thousands who joined the Legion after their service in World War II grow older and die. 

The second challenge is a matter of recruitment.

“A lot of the Legion members are quite elderly and it’s tough to get young people to join,” said longtime member David DeFriest, who eventually offered to replace Mr. Sanders on a trial basis. Mr. DeFriest, 73, said Post 803 has attracted some younger members, but not nearly enough. 

“My plan is to try and stick it out for at least a year,” he said. “If everything goes well for the first three months — and they don’t try to tar and feather me — I’ll probably stick it out, I think.

“I lead a pretty active life and I try to keep busy and I have a pretty good work ethic,” he continued. “Somebody had to step up and I didn’t have any qualms about giving it a shot.”

The majority of current post members — approximately 75% — served in the Korean or Vietnam wars, including Mr. DeFriest — who was a yeoman charged with typing up military police reports in the Navy from 1970 to 1972. Mr. Sanders, who began his service in the Marine Corps Reserve as an enlisted corporal in 1991, is among the roughly 12% of Post 803 members who served from the time of the first Gulf War to the present. 

Michael Pankowski, a former county commander for the legion, said these demographic trends, and the challenges that accompany them, are similar across Suffolk County.

“It’s hard to get the youngsters involved, mainly because when they come out of the military they’ve got families, they’ve got not one but two jobs, trying to get their family going,” he explained. “They’ve only got so much time to do anything.”

Attracting new, younger members is vital to keeping American Legion posts operating through changing times and allowing them to grow while adhering to the Legion’s four pillars: veterans affairs and rehabilitation, national security, Americanism and children and youth. While the VFW helps veterans who served overseas during wartime through mental and physical health services as well as financial support and educational services, the American Legion focuses first and foremost on promoting patriotism and pride among veterans and their community through its pillars. The Legion satisfies veterans’ desire to serve and reinforces the four pillars through charity, parades and other patriotic community events, connecting veterans with one another and hosting children’s groups such as Boy and Girl Scout troops for free.

As the bulk of legion members age, younger members must connect with fellow veterans, as well as their larger respective communities, in the digital age. In fact, ensuring that the Southold post’s monthly newsletter aligned with its broader social media messaging was one of Mr. Sanders’ many goals during his tenure as post commander.

Among his other goals during his tenure was the renovation of the Legion hall’s bar, a task completed last month. The old-fashioned wood paneling has been replaced, and light-up liquor shelves and new bar stools featuring plaques honoring local veterans have been installed.

“Not only do we want to attract people who can rent the post — which generates funds for the post to be successful — but it also is beneficial to the veterans and their families who actually use it,” Mr. Sanders said. “It makes it more aesthetically pleasing and aesthetics have a huge role in how we feel psychologically, I think.”

Now that the bar is complete, Mr. DeFriest hopes to continue with his predecessor’s ambitious plans to further enhance the hall’s facilities and attract more members, particularly young veterans. Recruiting this group will be difficult, but not impossible.

Mr. Sanders understands the time constraints his peers face. He believes the pitch to join the legion should not stress the time commitments and the responsibility, but rather should appeal to members’ innate desire to serve.

“People want to be a part of something that means something,” he said. “Once they’re out of the service, there’s that window of opportunity, where they still have that feeling of loving the military and still wanting to serve. That’s when we’re able to capture their mind and get them into the Legion. But I think the reason why a lot of them are not coming in is because they don’t quite understand what the Legion is,” he continued. “That’s really a matter of the Legions communicating that to that younger generation.”

Jack Martilotta, 47, commander of the Legion’s Burton Potter Post 185 in Greenport, has been actively recruiting his peers since taking command there in 2021. 

“A lot of people are skeptical initially, but it’s one of those organizations where we meet once a month,” Mr. Martilotta said. “Everybody’s got jobs, families, whatever it may be, and I think that’s important, so you can be as committed as you want. There’s some months where you can do a lot, and some months you can’t. It’s just trying to find that balance. As long as we’re meeting, we’re making it fun, and the events that we do are meaningful, I think we’ll continue to attract members.”

Mr. Martilotta said his post has succeeded in drawing interest from veterans and community members in recent years, after an extensive renovation of their legion hall, which is now open to the community and boasts a performance stage, a projector screen, a rentable hall and even a roller rink.

Ultimately, the driving force behind local American Legion posts is to bring veterans together. One of the things many service members miss upon returning to civilian life is the unique camaraderie shared among Americans who have served in the military. 

“It gives them a sense of being a part of an organization that looks to help people in the community and it gives them a sense of belonging to a group, having friends and camaraderie,” Mr. DeFriest said. “It’s a place to go if they need someone to turn to.”