Forget all the stereotypes of a veteran's lodge. American Legion Post 911 in San Francisco attracts 20-somethings who skip the smoke-and-liquor bingo nights in favor of coed skydiving and paintball outings.
"This is not your grandfather's post at 911," says Army Capt. Michael Gerold, the driving force behind the first American Legion post dedicated to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. "We're not trying to change the American Legion, we are trying to rebirth it."
Captain Gerold pressed for Post 911 after seeing his comrades struggle upon homecoming. Some crashed at his condo in San Francisco with little more than sleeping bags and feelings of alienation from those largely oblivious to the war. The Legion, Gerold realized, could be transformed to help his generation of vets reconnect.
Currently at 316 members, Post 911 is now one of the fastest-growing posts in the country, bringing new lifeblood to an organization that's seen its membership age and decline.
At its high-water mark in 1946, the Legion had 3,326,000 members. Last year, the number stood at 2,629,000 spread across 15,000 posts worldwide. The Legion's national spokesman, John Raughter, notes that as a proportion of total veterans in the population, membership surpasses the post-World War II era.
But there's no question the Legion is growing older. Eighty percent of today's members served in Vietnam or earlier wars, with an unknown, single-digit percent serving in the war on terror. The organization supports Gerold's efforts to bring in younger members.
"We don't micromanage the posts," says Mr. Raughter. "If they want to put their emphasis on activities, we think that's great. That apparently is working well for them." Post 911 entirely dispenses with the traditional lodge concept of men spending time sharing beers and war stories.
"Let's just say drinking when coming back from a war is not such a hot idea," says Gerold, a special operations officer who served a tour in Afghanistan. "I would suggest all the things we had to do over there, all of those war stories, need to be left in Afghanistan and Iraq where they belong."
Post 911, which began in September 2007, is oriented around adventure outings, involving both men and women, as well as mandatory community service. But this wouldn't be an organization filled with military people without missions, phased strategies, and specially named task forces.
The mission of Post 911 is to get veterans better access to education, medical care, and vocational opportunities.
The education piece is simple: No one can become a member of Post 911 unless they agree to go to college. "It is a nonnegotiable for me," says Gerold. The post is setting up scholarships and partnering with the University of San Francisco, where Gerold himself is now working toward an MBA.
The post will also help members navigate medical forms, urge those with mental scars to get professional treatment, and nudge employers to open career paths.
The strategy: bolster the institutional strength of the Legion by opening or revamping posts across the country with recent veterans, starting in San Francisco.
"We go to the belly of the beast," says Gerold, referring playfully to the peacenik city he loves. "If we can succeed in San Francisco at rebirthing the nation's largest veterans' service organization, we can succeed anywhere."
Calls have already come in from posts around the country looking to emulate Post 911, says Gerold.
"This is a very interesting thing that he's doing, and it's state of the art for the Legion," says Army Lt. Col. Debra Roesler, a Post 911 member who served in Kuwait. She's now a professor of military science at the University of California, Berkeley. "You are never going to see a parade down Van Ness [Street in San Francisco], so this is a way to honor those young people."
In some ways, Gerold is trying to push beyond gestures anyway, toward more tangible help for veterans. He hands out wristbands that say "We DO for the troops" – a slogan he hopes will replace "support the troops."
"Today's veteran is an energetic, educated, and, at times, struggling volunteer," says Gerold. "That struggling volunteer shouldn't have to come home and struggle."