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Memorial Day: A Call to Action

AKRON-For generations, the story of Memorial Day in Akron-Newstead has been all about veterans honoring their own. For as long as most of us can remember, flag-decorated cemeteries, ceremonial volleys of gunfire, parades down Main Street and stirring ceremonies in Russell Park and along Murder Creek, honored the service and sacrifice of thousands of area veterans.

Those traditions, including this year’s activities, no longer will take place without significant involvement by the community, say leaders of the local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts.

Over the years, the Legion and VFW took turns organizing the Memorial Day activities. But as membership in both groups dwindled, the task has become more than the two organizations can manage.

“We know the community looks forward to it, but we don’t have the means to do it,” VFW Quartermaster Brian Murray said recently, as officers of the two veterans groups discussed the challenge and growing difficulty of putting together the annual Memorial Day activities.

They would like to see Memorial Day observances transition to a community-run event, coordinated by a group committed to maintaining the dignity of the day with a quality program. Coordination of the parade, developing the Russell Park service and lining up speakers would shift to the community group. The Legion and VFW would continue to oversee placement of flags on veterans’ graves at area cemeteries.

It has become increasingly common for non-veteran groups to organize Memorial Day observances in their communities. Murray, Legion Commander Marty Smith and VFW Commander Frank Falkowski, said that it needs to happen here, and soon.

“The community should be honoring the veterans, not the veterans honoring veterans,” Smith said.

Membership rolls show the challenge facing both posts. Age, declining health and an increasing number of seasonal residents, has left both organizations with just a few active members. It’s come to the point where finding enough members just to fill the rifle squad for Memorial Day volleys has been difficult.

It wasn’t always that way. Both posts thrived when veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam filled membership rosters. But today, with fewer young vets signing on while longtime members age out, the number of active members has reached historic lows. So low, that the VFW and Legion now share quarters at the Legion post on Eckerson Avenue. The VFW is seeking offers as it markets the sale of its former Lewis Road home.

The three post officers are hopeful that future membership drives will replenish membership rosters with younger veterans. But that doesn’t diminish the urgency to transition Memorial Day events to community group, Murray, Smith and Falkowski said.

If you are interested in being part of a community Memorial Day group, leave your name and contact information at 716-442-6001.