Even though their youth programs and bar and restaurant were shut down for most of the 2020, American Legion Post 15 in Detroit Lakes is expecting a return to normal in 2021.

During a dinner at Post 15 with state, and national, legion officials on Friday, April 9, the leadership discussed how to draw more former service members into the post through their youth outreach programs and how to shed the stereotypical Legion-post-bar label.

"One of the things I want the community to understand is that the American Legion is not just a bar," said Eric Wilkens, judge advocate for Post 15. "We're really about programs. We're about veterans strengthening America."

He said American Legion Baseball, Boys and Girls State, oratorical contests and education scholarships are important ways Post 15 engages with the community. The post also helps showcase the combined Lakes Area Color Guard, which performs during official ceremonies and is made up of veterans from area legion and VFW posts.

The American Legion also has four organizational pillars that can draw entire families to the organization, Wilkens said.

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Those pillars are:

  • American Legion - former service members.
  • American Legion Auxiliary - spouses, mothers, daughters, granddaughters, and sisters of veterans.
  • Sons of the American Legion - male descendants of veterans.
  • American Legion Riders - a motorcycle riding group that participates in community events and fundraisers for various charitable causes.

Wilkens heads the local chapter of the American Legion Riders in Detroit Lakes and said the group gets its members active with fundraisers in the community and a love of motorcycle riding.

"So we really do a lot of things," said Wilkens. "It's much more than (a bar), that's really a small part of what we are and what we do. It really is all about the programs."

The national commander of the American Legion, James W. "Bill" Oxford, who was on a weeklong, nine-post tour of Minnesota, was the reason officials met in Detroit Lakes for dinner last Friday. Oxford shared his message, which included the importance of their youth outreach programs and urged members to also be "inviters" of former service members into their ranks.

Membership in the American Legion has declined from a high of 3.3 million in 1948, to about 1.7 million in 2021.

"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," said Oxford, during his remarks.

Currently, Post 15 has about 425 paid members, but their membership has been declining in recent years. Last year, the national organization began allowed any former service member to join the American Legion in an effort to increase their declining membership.

The COVID-19 pandemic also affected Post 15 just the same as other bars and community organizations.

Mark Dvorak, American Legion department leader for Minnesota, delivers remarks at American Legion Post 15 in Detroit Lakes during a dinner welcoming James W. "Bill" Oxford, national commander of the American Legion, to Post 15 on Friday, April 9, 2021. Oxford visited Detroit Lakes as his ninth, and final, stop on his weeklong Minnesota tour of legion posts. (Michael Achterling / Tribune)
Mark Dvorak, American Legion department leader for Minnesota, delivers remarks at American Legion Post 15 in Detroit Lakes during a dinner welcoming James W. "Bill" Oxford, national commander of the American Legion, to Post 15 on Friday, April 9, 2021. Oxford visited Detroit Lakes as his ninth, and final, stop on his weeklong Minnesota tour of legion posts. (Michael Achterling / Tribune)

"We have lost a few posts, buildings per se," said Mark Dvorak, American Legion department commander for Minnesota. "But I am happy to say that a majority of the posts that I have had a chance visit with since we've reopened are doing well."

Dvorak said he's grateful for all of the support programs implemented at the local, state and national level, and believes without those programs many more posts would've found themselves in more difficult positions.

Locally, Wilkens said, "Meetings have been smaller and people have just been kind of staying away," due to the post's older membership fear from the pandemic, but also because many members haven't returned from their winter residence getaways yet.

He also said the post's lounge, and campground, usually receive a lot of Canadian tourism traffic during a typical summer, but, with the boarder being closed, those visitors didn't come last year.

"Thankfully, with some of the county grants and the PPP loans, and other things, we've been able to stay afloat," he said. "We are hopeful for a very good 2021 and a rebound. Life will happen, our programs will get back out there, and things will get going again, and again, (the programs are) what we're about."