The American Legion's poppy program dates to World War I. It takes its symbol from the poem In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, a Canadian artillery officer during the war.
The poem famously opens, "In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses row on row."
Since then, the Legion has adopted the flower as a symbol of freedom and the blood sacrifice of troops in wartime. Veterans make artificial poppies for the Legion that are then offered as gifts to the public, often for donations.
In a bid to reinvigorate a program that some say has fallen on hard times and reduced collections, national Legion officials in May dramatically changed rules governing the program.
For the first time in the program's history, the $2 million collected annually can now be used to help active service members in need, not just veterans.
The Legion's national executive committee also cut all uses of the funds that had allowed poppy donations to be used on things that did not provide direct aid to veterans.
Previously, the Legion had allowed funds to be used for administrative costs and travel expenses to conferences.
In minutes of a meeting of national Legion officials in May, officials discussed "problems that have plagued the poppy program for years." A resolution adopting changes, the minutes said, might raise public awareness and "reinvigorate" the program.
The poppy program is operated by the Legion's local women's auxiliaries — the wives, sisters and daughters of troops who served during wartime. The local auxiliaries are independent entities, though they are closely related to Legion posts.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars also operates a poppy program. VFW state and national officials did not return calls for comment.
There is some disagreement on just what problems the poppy program has faced. In Florida, the problem is dramatically falling donations. Donations have fallen more than 75 percent, from nearly $200,000 in 2008 to less than $50,000 in the fiscal year ending June 30, according to state Legion auxiliary figures.
Robin Briere, secretary-treasurer of the statewide auxiliary, blamed falling membership on the dwindling number of World War II veterans and retailers being increasingly wary about the liability that comes with elderly poppy volunteers soliciting donations on their property.
But Mary "Dubbie" Buckler, executive director of the Legion's national auxiliary, said annual collections across the nation have held steady at about $2 million. She said she had no explanation for the Florida trend.
Buckler said minutes that said problems have "plagued" the program are off the mark. "I wouldn't shine a big spotlight on that," she said.
Instead, the minutes reflected minor "aggravations," including the quality of paper used to make the artificial poppies. Fewer domestic paper mills means the group must get supplies from China, where paper and glue quality is often uneven, Buckler said.
The 84-year-old adjutant of a Legion post in Ocala said he thinks he knows what may have sparked changes — his pestering.
The adjutant, Gene Andrews, is a retired law enforcement officer. He also served as assistant director for operations at the state Beverage Department and was a private investigator.
Andrews became adjutant of Legion Post 27 in Ocala last year when he discovered that his auxiliary was giving the post its poppy donations to help with operating expenses. Last year, the post got about $800, he said. This had been going on for years.
The Legion officer's guide said, "Donations are used exclusively to assist and support veterans and their families."
But that was confusing to him. This was still before May, when the Legion changed rules that had allowed some nonveteran uses for the money.
In March, he called officials of both state and national Legion and auxiliary leaders repeatedly asking about the rules.
In May, the Legion executive committee adopted new poppy rules reinforcing money could only be used to help veterans. Andrews was surprised. Did he trigger this shift?
Legion officials insist he didn't and the timing was a coincidence.
Andrews believes other Legion posts and auxiliaries are misusing poppy money. The pressure is on as membership and budgets fall, he said.
Every local post and auxiliary is its own corporate entity but they are supposed to follow Legion rules. The locals arrange to have their books audited. But neither the state nor national officials directly oversee their operations or verify how they use funds.
"They are their own entities," said Briere, noting state officials do not verify that poppy money is used as required. She said leaders respond when a problem is reported.
Misuse of poppy money "really isn't a widespread problem," said Buckler, the national auxiliary director. "Members do this as a labor of love. To join, they have to be the descendants of a wartime veteran. They know the hardships of being related to someone who served in time of war."
So members use money appropriately, she said.
Susan Craft, secretary-treasurer of a New Port Richey auxiliary, agrees. She said everybody understands the rules, and she has never heard of any problems.
She said the bigger issue is lagging donations. "It's dwindled immensely," Craft said.