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Generation divide evident on Veterans Day

As membership dwindles at local organizations, aging veterans keep traditions alive

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Photo courtesy of jim Robertson. Former College Park mayor and veteran Joseph Page, second from left, sits among empty chairs Sunday at a Veterans Day commemoration service in College Park.

Photo courtesy of jim Robertson. Former College Park mayor and veteran Joseph Page, second from left, sits among empty chairs Sunday at a Veterans Day commemoration service in College Park.

Published on: Wednesday, November 14, 2012

By Annika McGinnis

At 11 a.m. sharp — decades later — they were ready for service.

Cars roared down Route 1, pop music blaring. Across the street, students milled around at The Enclave apartment complex. The crosswalk walk signal beeped loudly.

But in the midst of the morning activity, the tone was solemn, almost reverential, around the small roadside memorial. About 50 veterans in the American Legion gathered Sunday at the intersection of Greenbelt Road and Route 1 for the annual Veterans Day commemoration.

They heard from National Guard Major Michael Krause, enjoyed a song by College Park Arts Exchange Director Melissa Sites and received small gifts during a medley of service songs. As Sites sung “Taps” at the end, elderly veterans decked out in shiny military uniforms pressed their hands to their hearts, raising their caps in recognition of each other and their country.

The only problem? The empty seats — less than half were filled.

“Today’s Sunday, and a lot of people go to church,” said Doris Davis, chair of the Veterans Memorial Improvement Committee. “And then another thing is the holiday — it’s a four-day weekend, and a lot of people go away.”

But to many attendees, the problem runs much deeper. They said veterans’ organizations have been declining in membership for years. Older veterans are dying off, and young people aren’t joining, said Lawrence Condatore, a World War II veteran. To Richard Compton, 54, problems include changing attitudes to war and a divide between the older and younger generations.

“We’ve been in two wars in the last 10 years. People totally forget it,” said Compton, who fought in the 1983 Grenada invasion. “It’s very indicative of modern-day politics.”

Compton said people often wrongly condemn soldiers for killing.

“The media portrays soldiers as baby killers,” Compton said. “What it doesn’t tell is the smell, the sound, the adrenaline, the fear.”

And newer and older veterans don’t know how to interact with each other, Compton added. He looked around at the gathering of about 30 upper middle-age and elderly people eating a post-ceremony lunch in College Park’s American Legion Post 217. He couldn’t picture youth mingling with older members, he said.

“What would they talk about?” he asked.

But many attendees said honoring veterans and soldiers is crucial, especially by the youth.

 “I think the fastest way to get ourselves into a conflict is to forget about the last one,” said Michael Krause, the National Guard major who spoke at the ceremony. “So we really need to take the time to think about the people who came before us.”

And Compton said young vets who don’t join veterans’ groups are going to lose the benefits such organizations lobby for, including college education and health care.

 “Now it’s going to be, ‘Too bad you’re missing a leg and an arm,’” Compton said. “Who’s going to stand up for the veterans?”

In College Park, members of the slowly aging Post 217 are determined to preserve the honor of military service. Each spring, they plant tulips around the memorial. Twice a year, they hold ceremonies. In 1992, memorial committee member Rita Zito said the organization rebuilt the memorial from something that looked like a “tombstone” to its current structure, an ascending spiral with flags and four inscriptions: honor, courage, service and sacrifice.

Ivy Christoffers, president of the American Legion Department of Maryland, said her organization was “very active” in local communities, holding frequent youth parties, school supply drives and a veterans’ art festival.

But young people just aren’t coming, members said — even in College Park, so close to the University of Maryland and its on-campus Reserve Officers Training Corps program.

One problem, to 92-year-old veteran and former College Park Mayor Joseph Page, is the conflict between the city and the university, much of which stems from students partying in residential areas. As mayor in the 1990s, Page said he established a communication-based “partnership” between the city and school. He hopes improving this relationship could bring in youth to city organizations such as the American Legion.

And the group isn’t gone, just yet. On Sunday, it seemed far from it.

In Post 217, gray-haired veterans joked with each other over hot plates of pasta, their shiny buttons gleaming. Familiar camaraderie, and a deep respect for each other and their shared experiences, permeated the event. There were fewer of them — more empty chairs, more leftover cake. But their pride still managed to fill the room.

“Regardless of whenever you do a gathering, it’s not the size of the people, it’s the heart of the people,” said veteran Mark Beard, 55. “The heart of us caring enough to be there. And that’s what it’s about.”

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