Derek Israel was seeking an opportunity to join a veterans service organization and provide community service. He applied to two major VSOs and had very different experiences.

“I became a member of one but I never went to a meeting, and I never renewed my membership because I was never contacted by anyone,” recalls Israel, who was a police officer after leaving the service. “Whereas, The American Legion did. They followed up with me and said, ‘Hey, we want you to be a member of the post.’”

That’s thanks to the membership efforts put forth by American Legion Travis Post 76 in Austin, Texas. Past Department, District and Post Commander Walter Ivie and others are making a concerted effort to draw veterans from all war eras, but focusing on those from the Desert Storm and Gulf War eras.

“We've always been welcoming for veterans,” Ivie said. “For the last 20 years, we have been successful in getting Desert Storm veterans. Most of our officers now are Desert Storm or later veterans, but we're all dedicated to getting more young veterans. Recently we started going out, hanging door hangers, and asking people face-to-face to join The American Legion, join the post.”

During his time as department commander, Ivie worked with district commanders to revitalize membership and create new posts. A strong membership is critical to the Legion at every level, Ivie noted.

“You need to join The American Legion to support the efforts that we have in standing up for veterans,” he said. “You need to lend your voice to my voice and other voices so we can exercise the influence in Congress, influence in the state where we defended Hinson and Hazlewood (Texas’ version of the GI Bill). We’ve got to have a sufficient voice to get their attention, and just joining The American Legion gives us that voice. There's no question that The American Legion is the voice of veterans. The American Legion has the influence to accomplish things like the forever GI Bill.”

While Post 76 is active in its community, its historic building has been a draw for many members. The city historian says the building – the Charles Johnson House — dates back to the 1830s, which makes it older than the city of Austin itself. During the Civil War, the building was used as a hospital.

The post bought the building and relocated there in 1924. There is not a bar but alcoholic drinks may be served during events. Those events are the main source of revenue for the post to provide services, donations and other assistance to veterans and the community.

After Israel joined the post in 2005, he became second vice commander, the position in charge of overseeing the post’s buildings and grounds. “At that time, our cash flow wasn't real good so we really required getting things back on track to start that process of being positive,” he said.

He credits Ivie’s leadership and financial know-how with helping the post become fiscally solid.

“Walter has some very unique abilities,” said Israel, who has also served two terms as post commander. “To me, me personally, he's been a mentor. From the time I joined the post he has helped me to understand how things have worked in the past, what we've done in the past that's worked, what hasn't worked, what we haven't figured out. In addition, he's a financial guru. He brings a financial focus and discipline to the post.”

Ivie’s approach inspired Israel to act.

“I came into a position where he said, ‘You know, here's some things I think will help us straighten out the cash flow what really have been resistant in the past,’” Israel recalls. “And he didn't say, ‘You have to do it this way.’ We went from a negative cash flow to where we are today, where we have an extremely healthy cash flow and a lot of money in the bank that we have earmarked for some big capital improvements here at the post.”

One of those changes is refurbishing a lounge into a theater-style room for movie nights.

“People’s interests change over time,” said Johnny Irvin, post historian. “Different generations have different needs. The young veterans today they're raising families. They're working jobs. They're not retired. We're building an actual family theater room, so we can have family time for the veterans. Veterans don't want to just go to some place to be with just veterans, they want their families to be included.”

Plans also include a pavilion so the post can host barbecues with bands and outdoor dancing on the lawn.

“There's a lot of things that we're changing so that the new generation of veterans have a place to go with their families and still get that comradeship that you miss when you leave the military,” he said. “The American Legion, I find, is just one big huge family. You're always welcomed, appreciated as a brother and sister. It’s what we show. It's what we do. We take care of each other and take care of the veterans, and we want these new guys to understand they have a place to go.”

Another addition to the property will be a veterans park that the city is planning. The post will host the park at the front of its property with the stately building overseeing it.

“Any time the city or the county does anything that deals with veterans' issues, they come to this post for input,” said 10-year post member John McKinney. “The city is putting a veterans' park right down below the post here. So they've come to us to get our input on what it should look like, and what plans, and should it match the décor of our post and make sure that it's going to fit in with our location.”

All of the upcoming enhancements are planned to welcome current and future generations of veterans. But post members know that’s only part of the recruiting equation. In order to attract and retain members like Israel, a personal touch is needed.

“Ask them if they used the GI Bill. Ask them if they go to the VA,” Ivie says, explaining his recruiting pitch to prospective members. “All of these things were started by The American Legion, all of them are being maintained and supported by The American Legion. The young veteran needs to join just to get his or her voice, just to give us the influence to continue to support veterans.”