Veterans groups battling against time?

It was a smaller than average turn out last June 14th. Only 50 or 60 veterans and their wives attended the annual Korea Veterans Day observances this year in London, Ont. The event, sponsored by Unit No. 4 of the Korea Veterans Association (KVA), included a small parade to the Wolseley barracks cenotaph, where O Canada and the Korean national anthem were played (on a cassette playback), a few short speeches delivered, wreaths laid and a prayer of dedication offered by Rev. J. Keith Stokes.

"I’m not a veteran of the Korean War," explains Rev. Stokes. "I just help out each year with the ceremony and banquet," held in the officer’s mess at the Wolseley Branch later that evening. Even with the reverend participating, the overall attendance was down. There were place settings, even entire banquet tables, with no one seated for the roast beef dinner.

"The KVA is one of the few veterans associations whose members are only those who fought," explains Jim Martin. Scotty, as he’s known, has emceed the Unit No. 4 Korea Veterans Day for years. During the Korean War, he served a tour with the First Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment, fought in the Bate of Kowang-san and was wounded while on patrol in May of 1952. He’s seen the number of his peers dwindle, but admits stoically, "one day this organization will be gone. When the last Korean War vet dies, so does our association."

That’s still a long way off. There are some 16,000 ex-soldiers, sailors and airmen who served in the Korean War between 1950 and 1953. However, attrition is cutting a wider swath through the ranks of older veterans groups. There is but a handful of First World War survivors able to attend Remembrance Day ceremonies each Nov. 11th. And in 1995, the year Second World War veterans proudly marked the 50th anniversaries of V-E Day and V-J Day, more than 9,000 members of the largest veterans organization in the country — the Royal Canadian Legion — died.

"We’re as active as ever," insists Bob Butt, public relations manager at the Legion’s Dominion headquarters in Ottawa. "We’ve got over half a million members. We still generate plenty of money for our various programs. And we’re still a potent lobby for veterans."

Butt has every right to be upbeat about the Legion. Its 533,000 members are active at nearly 1,700 branches coast-to-coast. Their annual poppy-selling campaign (staged each Nov. 11th in tribute to Canada’s more than 114,000 war dead) generates about $20 million and the Legion has assets pegged at about $450 million. Not bad for a non-profit, dues-supported fraternal organization that began in 1925 principally to secure adequate pensions and other benefits for veterans and their dependents.

In 1996 the Legion spent $3.3 million in direct support to needy veterans, $3.7 million in housing projects, $3.4 million as direct support for seniors, $5.4 on medical services and equipment, $16 million to charities and nearly $8 million to support youth activities; for example, about a third of the Canadian track and field athletes and all Canadian medal winners at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games were alumni of the Legion’s track and field camps (begun in the 1950’s).

However, today the 72-year-old institution is battling an unbeatable foe — age. The ranks of the Legion seem to dwindle at increasing rates each year. In the five years between 1991 and 1996, membership dropped by 60,000, while 47 RCL branches have closed since 1992. This, despite lifting a restriction on membership to former military personnel only — a quarter century ago, the Legion instituted "associate members," those without military background, and today there are more than 200,000 associates with voting rights (including the children and grandchildren of former service men and women).

One Legion outlet is even more proactive than that. Branch 360, along Toronto’s trendy Queen St. W., realized survival lay in giving the community what it wanted. With a change in provincial liquor laws in 1992 to allow not just members, but all public into the hall, the branch executive secured a mortgage and refurbished the bar to attract new clientele. Not that young patrons realize what the building stands for, "but even if they look up and realize this is a legion, or pause to read the plaque outside [dedicated to Victoria Cross winner Philip Konowal]," explains the branch president, "maybe some will recognize that people made sacrifices for their prosperity."

The need for marketing savvy hasn’t escaped Scotty Martin, the Korean War veteran who also emcees the annual Warriors Day Parade at the London Western Fair. For 22 years he’s been the narrator for the pageant of military bands, color parties and marching units that entertain audiences at the fairgrounds grandstand each September. Attendance has not been the best in recent years.

"But this year we’ve got 58 different veterans, police and militia groups from across the U.S. and Ontario coming," says Martin. "Vice Admiral Larry Murray (acting Chief of Defence Staff) will be there as will a flypast of Harvard aircraft from the local [Canadian Harvard Aircraft] Association. And this year the veterans organizations have been given complimentary tickets for their wives so we can put more people in the grandstand."

Still, if the public or the media choose to stay away, veterans wives in the grandstand can’t overcome the deficit at the gate or in public awareness. Oddly, though, it’s a rash of veterans’ monument unveilings this past year that has captivated both the public and the media. Recently, in Brampton, Ont., at the dedication of a Wall of Remembrance to the 516 Canadians killed in the Korean War, nearly 700 veterans gathered and a thousand other bystanders attended. Toronto’s three major newspapers, CBC Radio and two regional TV networks, captured the event for the evening news. The event was so successful, plans are already underway to bring veterans from across the country to the Wall in the year 2000.

But once the initial blush of interest fades and the wreaths wither, memorials are painfully static. In Ottawa, the number of figures marching through the archway of Canada’s National War Memorial remains unchanged.

Sculptor Vernon Marsh’s twenty-two figures (representing all branches of the armed services) have marched there in bronze since 1939. Like the war dead they embody, these comrades-in-arms shall not grow old. But because the survivors, who return to pay tribute at their feet each year, are nearing life’s end, so too are the veterans organizations they represent.