Memorial Day programs: ‘I hope we can keep it going another 10 years’

Shrinking veterans groups, shrinking Memorial Day programs

Pat Dooley was drafted in 1969, spent two two years in Germany and is commander of La Salle American Legion Post 426. And, yes, he will participate in this weekend’s Memorial Day program.

Oglesby’s program, that is. There will be no program inside La Salle city limits.

Once upon a time, Dooley and his comrades processed to four La Salle cemeteries and conducted services at the city’s Veterans Park.

“None of that happens now,” said Dooley, 73, who counts about five active members from a roster of 25 who are largely older than him. “For a while we continued to go to the park, but it’s been four or five years at least since we’ve done that and probably a few years before that we quit the cemeteries.

“There’s probably not a long-term future for the post.”

La Salle’s veterans are hardly alone in trying to mount Memorial Day programs in the face of tumbling enrollments and declining mobility.

Peru, for example, will have a Memorial Day program but the city’s VFW post was disbanded in 2020. Groups in Bureau and Lee counties have scaled back processions by cutting out rural cemeteries. Groups contacted by Shaw Media were unable to confirm, before press time, any program in Compton and West Brooklyn.

“It is getting harder,” agreed Terry DeSalle, a past commander of American Legion Post 125 in Princeton. “I hope we can keep it going another 10 years, but we’ll be in our 80s then and the younger veterans all have families and jobs and don’t have the time.

“It’s becoming quite a problem, really.”

It is, in fact, a nationwide problem, chronicled by sobering projections from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA reported more than 628,000 veterans living in Illinois in 2017, the most recent year available, but more than half were at least 65 years of age and fewer than 10% were 35 or younger.

The VA estimates there will be just 2,000 World War II veterans, and 14,000 Korea veterans, in all of Illinois by 2025. Who then would conduct Memorial Day observances?

DeSalle said he foresees a day when active duty personnel will be summoned to observe the holiday.

Other communities will observe the holiday with joint ceremonies, as is the case in La Salle and Oglesby, or with civilian-run coalitions, which is the case in Ottawa.

Katie Troccoli is president of the Ottawa Memorial Association and has overseen the city’s Memorial Day program about 25 years after her veteran predecessor suffered a health crisis.

Troccoli thinks the day is coming when municipalities will have to sponsor events because the veterans halls will have been emptied.

“I think we’re seeing the attrition happening now,” Troccoli said. “We’re probably working with half the people we used to work with.

“It’s not just that our veterans are crossing over, it’s that the younger generation is not joining.”