The American Legion family delivered a message in February. But we didn't speak. We roared. How else does one explain how, with little advance notice, American Legion posts, Auxiliary units, Sons of The American Legion squadrons and American Legion Riders chapters rallied their members, spread the word and generated the votes needed for Operation Comfort Warriors to finish first among 729 competing charities in Pepsi's Refresh Everything Project? The result: an additional $250,000 to purchase comfort items for men and women recovering in U.S. military hospitals and warrior-transition units around the globe.
Veterans have always been a determined lot, but there was something new added to this equation: the power of social media. As my Twitter followers and Facebook friends can attest, I have been preaching this gospel since before my days as national commander. The Refresh Everything Project, however, proved my theory true.
Although The American Legion nominated Operation Comfort Warriors for the contest in mid-January, we didn't learn until Feb. 1 - the first day of Internet voting - that the program had passed all the necessary qualification hurdles. By Feb. 3, we had rocketed from 27th place to second. By the final weekend of the month, we were on top.
We relied on our Web site, the Online Update, the Dispatch and external media. The American Legion Auxiliary fired off an e-mail blast. So did our friends in Legion Riders. Departments linked to the Refresh Everything Web site and reminded people to vote for OCW. American Legion family newspapers and newsletters published announcements. Facebook friends chatted. People Tweeted and re-Tweeted. By the middle of February, I Googled "Pepsi and American Legion" and found page after page of posts encouraging people to vote for this great program.
Getting the word out quickly has always been a challenge for an organization as large as The American Legion. With 55 autonomous departments and more than 14,000 equally autonomous posts, reaching our rank and file requires more than simply flicking a switch. Yet the word did get out, and enough people voted daily for us to finish first.
Operation Comfort Warriors, at www.legion.org/ocw, is modeled after an earlier Legion fundraiser for troops recovering at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. While the care at most U.S. military hospitals and warrior-transition units is first-rate, Operation Comfort Warriors was created to provide so-called "non-essential" items that don't show up as budget lines on government spreadsheets: iPods, electronic games and DVDs for patients, or pool tables and entertainment centers for their common areas. The Legion pays all administrative and operating costs for OCW out of its own budget. This means that 100 percent of donations - including the Pepsi grant - go directly to helping the troops. These gifts won't make the patients "whole" again, but they do show them that we care about them and appreciate their sacrifice.
On May 31, this nation will observe Memorial Day, a solemn day during which we remember our war dead. As much as we revere these heroes, let's not forget the more than 35,000 troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fallen would want us to take care of their friends.