Canadian vets turn to younger generation

Old uniforms hang on the walls of Branch 258 of the Royal Canadian Legion in Toronto. The Legion is Canada's Veterans organization. It provides services to veterans and their families and it promotes remembrance.

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What's missing here � on the Saturday before Remembrance Day � is a critical mass of veterans.

Some non-military members pack the hall for a raffle to raise money for the Legion. Sitting near the back of the room are three old men. They're the only veterans here and they've come to share a few drinks and a few war stories.

�I'm not bragging but being armoured reconnaissance we led the second division into Holland,� veteran Al Armstrong said.

Armstrong, 85, fought in Europe during World War II. He's worried about the future of the legion and whether people will continue to remember the sacrifices of his generation.

�When we're gone, and we haven't got that much farther to go, what then?� Armstrong asked. �What's going to happen?�

Many older Canadian veterans say the answer is clear: the thousands of younger Canadian soldiers who have served in Afghanistan need to join the legion and continue the tradition of remembrance.

The problem is that it isn't happening.

�It's frustrating, yes because they're out there,� said John Vassair, a veteran who fought in Korea.

�What's the matter? Are they shy?�

Vassair he volunteers with the Legion. He organizes school visits where veterans tell war stories and answer questions. He says he struggles to find enough Afghanistan veterans.

�I'm trying to get people to go to the schools, and it's very difficult,� Vassair said.

�Last year I turned down school after school that wanted a veteran to come and speak to the students, and I couldn't get anybody. They just don't want to come out.�

The Legion says they are seeing a slight increase in memberships from younger veteran soldiers who served in Afghanistan, or those who took part in UN peace-keeping missions in the Balkans or Cyprus.

And Legion president Pat Varga says she expects to see more in five to10 years.

�I think that we are also realistic,� Varga said.

�When our young men and women come home, they have lots to do in their own lives to get their lives and their families back on track. They will at some point join organizations � be it ours, or other ones.�

Capt. Matt Littlechild, who served in Afghanistan last year, says he does plans to join the Legion. But not right now.

�We'll need a place to get together and the Legion is a perfect place for that,� Littlechild said.

�And I know 20 years down the road; I know I'll be ready for that. My life will be quite a bit quieter than it is right now and it'll be the same for all of my friends. So I see us being active members.�

That gives Canada's older veterans some hope that their service will be remembered. But the veterans do worry that in the next few years there may not be enough Legion members to keep the organization going especially during the critical period around Remembrance Day.

That's why a few years ago the Legion made the controversial move. They started allowing non-veterans to join as associate members to help keep the memories alive until a new group of veterans begin to step up.