Article By: JEFF MOELLER Special to The Press
Robert “Wabs” Chromiak remembers the nights at Catasauqua American Legion Post 215 when it once seemed like the social events never ended.
“We had bowling leagues just about every night, and there were so many other things going on,” he said. Chromiak 84, is a veteran of the Korean War and a member of the local post for 50 years.
“We had a lot of members, and it really was a great place to be. I played on basketball and baseball teams and also golfed in their tournaments.”
Time have changed.
“It is not like it used to be,” he said. “We’re not getting the amount of members like we were getting.”
Attracting new members appears to be the main issue plaguing Catasauqua’s post, along with the more than 800 posts and hundreds of thousands of members across the state of Pennsylvania. Most of the current members are seniors in the late 60s, 70s and 80s.
It is one in a series of obstacles and concerns for Catasauqua American Legion, founded and chartered in 1919 as a patriotic and mutual service for war veterans.
Catasauqua’s post has 284 active members, according to legion Commander Helmut Fried, who has been in that role for the past two years. Fried remains optimistic his post and others can attract recent veterans of wars and conflicts.
“We’re looking to get more guys in their 40s, 50s and 60s to join,” Fried said. At age 73, he has been involved with the post for 15 years.
“I don’t know why younger men don’t want to join,” he said. “Nobody really knows. It continues to be a problem for all of the posts. We have been trying different ways to get the word out.”
Lisa Williams, who has worked as the bar manager at the legion for the past two years, sees time management as a major deterrent to recruiting new members. However, her three sons — Michael, Timothy, and Jacob — are active members.
“We have some active guys in their 50s and 60s,” Williams said. “The biggest problem is making the time. Guys are busy with their families, and it can be very difficult to donate their time. But we always have events happening here.”
The legion post is open every day.
“It would be great to have a younger crowd join,” she said. “Some of the younger crowd don’t know we are here and active. It could be a matter of just getting them in the door.”
Catasauqua American Legion members remain active in recalling and honoring holidays and other special events throughout the year. They continue to remind the public, especially elementary and high school students, about the sacrifices made by servicemen and women throughout the years and encourage respect for the flag and country.
“We do get into the schools and have presentations,” Fried said. “It’s important to remind everyone how the different forms of the military helped shape this country.”
Chromiak and Williams see the presence of the legion playing less of a role in society today.
Chromiak is a member of the firing squad and color guard.
“We’re still active with many programs, but I think it has lost some of its luster from the past,” he said. “I don’t think there is the same amount of respect for these types of organizations and the flag that there was years ago. There isn’t the same type of respect paid to these types of organizations today.
“It annoys me when I go to sporting event and see boys and men who don’t remove their caps during the national anthem. That’s sad.”
Fried, who has undergone more than 40 procedures from the effects of Agent Orange, stated how the legion can assist vets in need.
“Too many vets don’t know what they are entitled to,” he said. “We can help vets locate and get needed benefits. I have been working with one man over the past four years. It is a matter of working with the government, and the situation is getting better.”
Denise Harner, who is the 14th District commander serving Lehigh and Berks counties, does see time management as an issue, but she also stated how the legion can provide assistance to vets who lose their jobs, as well as those with children.
She also noted an increased amount of women veterans joining, as there have been three women commanders in the 14th District, as well as several throughout the state.
Harner, a Navy veteran, has been a legion member for 20 years.
“Everyone is faced with a number of responsibilities, and it can be difficult to take on another one,” she said.“The legion has a number of programs that can help vets in certain situations, and there are ongoing programs to connect with the public, such as [one on ] how to fold a flag. We especially want to reach out to the children and younger members to show them how their time can be worthwhile to the legion. That’s a key and they can be future members.”
Harner realizes the membership dilemma, but she also believes the legion does garner the respect of the public.
“We’ll continue to strive to gain new members,” she said. “I think the respect for the legion is much better than it was. People better understand why the wars were fought and the sacrifices made. We’ll all continue to move forward and let our presence be known.”