'Walking for those who marched for us'

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Legionnaire Laura Leger wasn’t going to miss American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett’s March 9 Walk for Veterans in Little Rock, Ark. – no matter how much rain was coming down.

Leger, the adjutant of Criswell-Robinson Post 71 in Cabot, Ark., was one of more than 50 participants in the walk. She made the 26-mile drive to the State Capitol because it was a chance to help raise money for the Legion’s National Emergency Fund (NEF). The fund provides financial assistance for Legionnaires and posts impacted by natural disasters; in 1979, the building Post 71 now resides in was damaged when a tornado went through Cabot.

“It’s important to help give back to the NEF,” Leger said. “Being in Arkansas, we’re in part of Tornado Alley. So we know what destruction is, and some of our post members have been affected in years past. We know all about what destruction means in this part of the country.”

While rain did end up moving the walk into the Capitol Rotunda, it didn’t reduce the attendance. In addition to Legion family members, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, and both state and Little Rock officials were on hand to support the walk.

“I want to salute The American Legion for your leadership, (and for your advocacy) and your love for veterans,” Hutchinson said. “In Arkansas we have 250,000 veterans. We’re never going to forget their sacrifice. It should not be difficult for veterans to get service. We should make it as easy as possible.”

Also in attendance was State Auditor Andrea Lea, the daughter of a veteran and mother of an American Legion Baseball player. She thanked Legionnaires “for serving. But thank you for coming home and continuing to serve.”

And Matt Sneed, director of the Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs, said the Legion's mantra of "veterans serving veterans" is more than a philosphy. "If we look to a state agency or we look to a federal agency to take care of us veterans, we're going to be sorely disappointed," he said. "It takes veterans taking care of other veterans to move our state forward and to move our issues forward. Us working together is what is going to move us in the right direction."Barnett said that the presence of so many state and city leaders “speaks volumes. We’re walking today for those who marched for us. Thank you for honoring those who’ve served.”

Department Commander C. Verlon Abram said it was important to stage an awareness walk in Arkansas “to bring attention to veterans’ issues. We have lots of issues that need addressing – not only in the state, but nationally. We’re more than happy to walk for veterans.”

And there was no chance of cancelling the walk because of heavy rains and week-long flood warnings in Little Rock. “We were going to do it if we had to walk in the rain,” Abrams said.

Joining Legionnaires and others in walking around the Capitol Rotunda was a group of teens participating in the Little Rock Job Corps Security and Safety Program. Thelma Dixon, their instructor – and an Army retiree and member of Michael Vann Johnson Jr. Post 74 in North Little Rock – said the teens often support Post 74’s activities.

“This is an opportunity that a lot of students won’t get: to do public service, to meet real veterans who have served their country,” Dixon said. “I like to get my students exposed to what’s going on in the community.”

Arkansas became the 28th state in which one of Barnett’s walks took place. “The experiences that we’ve had all across the country … it’s been a great experience to bring people together, to be able to tell our story of why we are members of The American Legion,” Barnett said. “And then just to share those stories. And today, in Little Rock, we had the governor, the lieutenant governor. We had the treasurer, the state auditor and several state representatives. People understand when we send a message loud and clear of The American Legion and serving those who marched before us.”

The national commander also praised the local volunteers who have helped make the walks such a success. “Local support of these awareness walks is critical to get the message out (and) to get our family out,” he said. We have so many people that help us honor and serve our veterans."