It's not everyday the national commander of the American Legion makes his way to rural northwest Minnesota to talk about the future over dinner.

James W. "Bill" Oxford, national commander of the American Legion, wrapped up his weeklong, nine-post Minnesota tour at Post 15 in Detroit Lakes on Friday evening, April 9. The trip was part of the commander's regular tour schedule of trying to visit all 55 legion departments, one for each state and five additional territories, during the year.

Oxford highlighted the difficult year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a near-normal future as many of the legion's youth programs that were cancelled last year will be returning in 2021.

"We have seen posts across the country, we've had posts lose their homes, they've closed their bars, their restaurants, their social quarters and get into real financial difficulties because of the lack of income," said Oxford. "Last fall, the national executive committee from the American Legion created a program called Mission Blue Post Assistance program and … we want to be able to provide some help, and assistance financially, to posts that are in trouble."

The program allows struggling posts to apply for $1,000 grants they can be used to pay current, or past, rent, mortgage, utilities and insurance costs, according to the legion's website. Posts that are interested can apply for the assistance grants online.

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During his speech, Oxford also said the group's membership has been trending in the wrong direction. In 1948, he said, the American Legion had 3.3 million members; however, in 2021, legion membership has dwindled to around 1. 7 million members.

"We've got to remember the American Legion is still here, still just as available and still just as relevant as we've ever been," said Oxford. "When we think about our organization, our organization depends on membership."

In 2020, the American Legion began accepting members who served in the military outside of active wartime. Oxford said 4.2 million new veterans, and potential members, became eligible to join the organization because of the new eligibility rules.

"We haven't seen the bump that I had anticipated," he said. "They are still out there and we need every member of the legion family … to be a recruiter, a retainer, and an inviter to make sure that we invite anybody who is eligible for the American Legion to become a legion member."

Legion posts also need to be more inviting to families, he said, and new veterans who have served in the post-9/11 era need to be recruited into the organization in order to help discard the misconception of being an older veteran oriented group.

American Legion National Commander James W. "Bill" Oxford, right, speaks with local legion members during his dinner stop at Post 15 in Detroit Lakes on Friday, April 9, 2021. Part of a weeklong post tour across Minnesota, Oxford highlighted the difficult year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a brighter future with the return of the legion's youth programs in 2021. (Michael Achterling / Tribune)
American Legion National Commander James W. "Bill" Oxford, right, speaks with local legion members during his dinner stop at Post 15 in Detroit Lakes on Friday, April 9, 2021. Part of a weeklong post tour across Minnesota, Oxford highlighted the difficult year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a brighter future with the return of the legion's youth programs in 2021. (Michael Achterling / Tribune)

"We are emphasizing our children, and youth programs, and we're looking at our digital footprint, and communication needs, using those digital tools to make the legion more realistic to our younger veterans," said Oxford.

The legion is moving forward with their 2021 youth programs in the states that will allow the events to proceed under their state's COVID-19 health department guidelines, he said. Those programs include: American Legion Baseball, Boys and Girls State, shooting programs and oratory contests, among others.

"If you think about our children and youth programs, we are developing the future leaders of this country," said Oxford.

In 2019, he said, more than 200,000 boys and girls were impacted by the legion's youth programs and the organization needs to keep being impactful for those younger generations so they can see the value the legion provides.

He also said American Legion Baseball has already received 1,250 teams registrations for their youth baseball program and hopes more will sign up in the coming weeks. He said the legion expects around 3,500 registered teams for the 2021 season, which will culminate in the American Legion World Series in Shelby, N.C., in August.

"We're moving forward," said Oxford. "We're still facing these restrictions because of COVID and we'll be looking at social distancing, and those kinds of requirements, but we're going forward and it looks like everything will eventually be bigger, and better, and stronger because of it."