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As membership declines, Rochester's new American Legion commander seeks to re-energize legions

His installation comes as some legions have turned in their charters due to declining membership.

New American Legion Post 92 Commander - Gilmore
Gilmore will be sworn in as the 74th Commander of American Legion Post 92 in Rochester on Tuesday, June 21, 2022. Gilmore is pictured on Friday, June 17, 2022, in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — On Tuesday, June 21, 2022, Gilmore will be sworn in as the 74th Commander of American Legion #92 in Rochester.

Gilmore, who goes by his last name only, hopes to use his tenure to raise public consciousness of the legion, to energize and re-invigorate it. The goal is to make people realize that the legion is more than an eating establishment, but plays a vital role in supporting veterans, the issues critical to them and the larger community.

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Gilmore’s installation as post commander comes at a time when some American Legions are turning in their charters due to declining membership. Rochester’s legion has more than 800 members but membership is declining, he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic battered legions, depriving veterans and others of a place to gather when governors issued lockdown orders. And Gilmore doesn't want that to happen here. The last thing he wants to be known for is the commander who turned in Rochester’s charter.

“I can’t imagine what it would be like for a commander to have to do that. I definitely don’t want to be that person,” he said.

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There are about 327,000 veterans and service members in Minnesota, 6% of the population, he said. Olmsted County has about 8,153 veterans and Rochester 5,820.

Gilmore served in the Marines, in light armored reconnaissance, from 1997 to 2006. He served tours in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of the challenges that the American Legion and other veterans organizations face is the lag time between member's military service and their decision to join a veterans organization. The average is 21 years. Many veterans find themselves too busy working, and starting and raising families to do so.

It isn’t until their children fly the coop and veterans find themselves with more time on their hands that they begin searching out veterans groups.

That 20-year span can end up hurting veterans groups. Veterans from Desert Storm are trickling in to American Legions, but the anticipated influx of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan wars have yet to arrive, he said.

Membership is not only key to the legion’s organizational health but gives voice to its concerns and priorities at state legislatures and in Washington, D.C.

“We need those individuals to become part of this, so we can take care of our own when it comes to health care needs, educational needs and employment,” Gilmore said.

Gilmore’s own trajectory to becoming a legion member happened faster than the two-decade rule-of-thumb. He at first resisted solicitations to join the Rochester legion until he had his own epiphany and more clearly understood the support it gives to veterans and the community.

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“I was constantly asked to be a part of it. And I kept saying, ‘This is just not my thing.’ I didn’t realize all the things that we do as the American Legion, how much we give back,” Gilmore said.

The American Legion was chartered by Congress in 1919 as a patriotic veterans organization. Focusing on service to veterans, service members and communities, the legion evolved from a group of war-weary veterans of World War I into, at its height, one of the most influential nonprofit groups in the U.S.

In Rochester, Drs. William and Charles Mayo played a role in the Rochester post’s early years. Both were brigadier generals in the U.S. Army Medical Reserve Corp. during World War I. Both were members of American Legion Post #92.

Gilmore will be sworn in Tuesday at the Rochester legion, 915 21st Ave. SE, by Mary Hanson. Hanson is the first female commander of the 1st District legion.

Gimore said he knows a large pool of veterans and service members are out there. Just drive to Walmart and you can see veterans stickers displayed on cars and license plates, the Iraq war hats worn by veterans.

“They’re out there and we need them,” Gilmore said.

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Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or mstolle@postbulletin.com.
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