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WILBER -- He returned from the Pacific with a bullet hole in his gut and shrapnel scars on his hips and shins.

But there was work to be done, and a young Pfc. William Kottas clocked in, eventually managing grocery stores in his hometown of Tobias, and then up the highway in Milligan.

He also joined the American Legion. He wanted to serve the community, he said. And he needed to surround himself with other young men who understood what he had been through during World War II, more than those who had stayed home ever could.

“There was the unity of the many service boys from all branches of service that we had in the Legion,” he said this week. “We did a lot of things. We tried to build up the community.”

Decades later, the 97-year-old still belongs to the American Legion. He lives at the Wilber Care Center now, so he doesn’t make it to too many functions. But he plans to see the Louis-Milan Post 101’s new, 5,500-square-foot headquarters and community center when it opens next month.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Kottas said. “It’s something that’s going to be remembered for years.”

And it's something that represents an investment in the future for a small-town American Legion post, something that challenges the organization's recent pattern of membership.

“The general membership trends have been on a slide,” said Beth Linn, the Department Commander for Nebraska, based in Scottsbluff. “Membership is down and we're working to change that.”

Last year, 32,257 Nebraskans belonged to the American Legion. This year, 30,095. And the declining numbers stretch across the state. Kimball’s post once had 142 members; now it has 11. Wahoo had a high of 380; now it’s 84. Lincoln once had nearly 9,300 members; that number is now fewer than 1,700.

Last year, two posts closed -- Murray-Beaver Lake on the state's eastern edge; Republican City in south-central Nebraska -- leaving about 100 left.

The basic problem, Linn said: Old veterans are dying, but younger vets aren't joining, aren't taking their place.

“They're not realizing what it is the Legion can offer them, or what the Legion has done for our vets in the last 98 years.”

Without the American Legion, she said, veterans wouldn't have the benefits of the G.I. Bill or help from Nebraska's county veteran service officers. The Legion offers its members financial help in hardships and natural disasters. The Legion Riders motorcycle movement has raised more than $1 million for scholarships for children of servicemembers killed or disabled in combat.

And lately, she said, it's been trying to appeal to younger veterans by offering activities for children -- “So the parents can attend meetings” -- and by making some of their clubs Wi-Fi hotspots.

There's so much potential, Linn said. For every veteran who belongs to a Legion post in Nebraska, there are more than two who don't.

“The main thing is changing the image of the American Legion,” she said. “It's not just a bunch of old men sitting down at the clubs drinking and playing cards anymore.”

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Not in Wilber. The Louis-Milan Post 101 is central to this town of about 1,800: The Scouts and other groups meet at the original brick building on Main Street, which still hosts some Legion events and is used heavily during the annual Czech Days.

But the post also owns a 20-acre Legion Memorial Park on the south edge of town, with ballfields, nearly 100 RV and camping sites, and space for receptions and parties.

“It’s hard to envision Wilber without the park,” Commander Gary Wooten said. “If you come here on a summer afternoon, you can hardly find a parking place.”

Wooten has researched the park's origins: After World War II, Legion members bought Wilber’s former horse track and exposition space. They've added to it over the years, buying more property as it came up for sale, and they've also given some of it away to the city, for more ballfields, tennis courts, a spot for sand volleyball.

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They put up a pole barn in the 1970s, with meeting space, concessions and bathrooms to serve the park.

That building had outlived its lifespan, Wooten said, and they started discussing the need to replace it nearly a decade ago. The park building wasn't big enough to accommodate the growing demand, and not strong enough to expand.

It was cheaper to start over.

“We talked about it and talked about it. Through good fortune, we managed to get the money promised to replace the building.”

He won't yet say who made the donations, but a pair of sizable gifts allowed the post to replace the old barn with a 110-by-50-foot multipurpose building with more bathrooms, showers, two meeting spaces, a full kitchen and bar. The Post 101 members will meet there, and the auxiliary and Sons of the American Legion, and they'll rent it out for community members to host gatherings.

They broke ground last fall, paying for the work they needed others to do, volunteering where they could.

The Wilber post has about 100 members, veterans who fought in every conflict from World War II to the War on Terror. A core group of about 20 helped empty the old park building, cleaning and storing what they could. In the new building, they installed insulation and painted. Outside, they’re ready to build a retaining wall.

This week, construction workers were pouring concrete, plumbing bathrooms, hanging the ceiling, getting the kitchen ready for appliances.

They need to have it ready by early May. They’ve already booked graduation parties.

But they’re building it right, Wooten said. It’s important for the Legion, and important for Wilber.

“None of us will be around, but I expect this building to be here for 100 years.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter.

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