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WWI vets organization on path to extinction
Scripps Howard News Service


November 10, 2006
Friday AM

At its peak, the "Veterans of World War I of the USA" boasted 800,000 dues-paying members and a full-time staff of 21.

Attendance was so high at one national convention that the vets and their spouses sat shoulder-to-shoulder at the banquet dinner, packed so tightly that there wasn't enough room for all of them to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.




Those days are long gone, faded away like the once-mighty ranks of veterans of the Great War, which ended 88 years ago Saturday.

More than 4.7 million Americans were in uniform on Nov. 11, 1918.

Today, the group's membership, such as it is, stands at 36. Though only about a dozen of those vets still survive, the organization has always welcomed as members anyone who enlisted in the armed forces after Armistice Day and served in the immediate aftermath of the war.

The federally chartered outfit was established in 1949, splintering off from the American Legion when World War I members clashed with those from World War II over the direction the Legion was taking.

The founders set the terms for the World War I group's eventual extinction by choosing not to make it a "perpetual organization" that would continue to exist forever. Instead, it was set on the path to disappear when the last WWI vet does.

Although the group's Washington office shut more than a decade ago, Muriel Sue Parkhurst Kerr continues to carry the title "CEO and Chief Executive" of the outfit she signed on to more than 30 years ago as a soon-to-be single mom badly in need of a job.

The "office" exists now in a corner of Kerr's home in suburban Virginia. Kerr had to disconnect its phone number after prisoners somewhere got hold of it and bombarded her with unpleasant calls.

Now employed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Kerr says she keeps in touch with some of the surviving vets and takes every opportunity to spread the word to the public at large about the uncommon patriotism, courage and grit this generation of veterans displayed, then and now.

And it pains her that, in her view, the sacrifices of these soldiers and sailors have dimmed over the years, overshadowed in the public mind by those of the World War II, Korea and Vietnam generations that followed.

"This is a war that kids don't even study anymore," Kerr said.

Ask her what will happen when the last WWI vet dies, and she chokes up. This year alone, 12 survivors have gone. She refuses to contemplate the time when none is left. Instead, she repeats the vow she made 15 years ago, to keep the organization alive until the last veteran takes his last breath.

"I made a promise and I will keep it," Kerr said.


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Ketchikan, Alaska