Nine-year-old Maia Recsnik – along with her father Joseph and 5-year-old brother Deacon – traveled across country from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to experience firsthand a presidential inauguration. They also found time to thank some veterans for their service.
The three wrote thank-you letters – Deacon's was more of a drawing – in The American Legion's booth during Saturday's National Day of Service on the National Mall. The booth gave the expected 15,000 to 25,000 attendees at the National Day of Service a chance to write thank-you letters to veterans, sign up to volunteer for the Department of Veterans Affairs and learn more about the Legion.
The Legion was asked by the White House to participate in the event and was tagged the "premier veterans service organization" at the event. The overall size and prominence of the Legion booth in the event's service tent – just off the main entrance – backed up that title. It drew the attention of thousands of attendees, including the Recsniks.
"They are important to our country, and they keep us safe," said Maia, when asked why she chose to write a thank-you letter. "They decide to do it. We don't make them do it."
The National Day of Service, part of inauguration weekend, was established four years ago and honors the life and legacy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The goals of the National Day of Service are to provide information on volunteer opportunities, to sign up volunteers, and to create stronger communities by rededicating individuals and communities to service and civic participation.
"It's an honor for us to be here," said Jacob Gadd, a deputy director in the Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division and the primary coordinator for the booth. "This space not only allows us to share information about what we do and what the Legion is all about, but it also allows us to help citizens get a chance to say thanks to the nation's veterans. It's important to recognize their service and sacrifices, and today – by being a part of this event – we'll able to help the nation thank them."
A steady flow of event attendees created standing room only for much of the day in the Legion booth, learning about Legion programs, grabbing membership cards and sometimes just sharing their military experiences with others. Nearly 2,000 thank-you letters were written and collected at the booth. For people like Michigan's Fannie Thigpen, it was a chance to remember the sacrifices made by members of her own family.
"My uncle served in World War II, and I had a brother who was in Vietnam and another who served when there wasn't a conflict going on," Thigpen said. "That's the main reason I'm doing this – to honor what my brothers and uncle did."
The booth was manned by Legion staff, as well as volunteers from D.C.'s Legion Post 1. "We're here because veterans continue to serve America in any a capacity and in any way they're capable," said Post 1 Commander Bill Ferguson. "Those veterans deserve our thanks because, given the opportunity, they'll continue to serve."
Also in the booth were Laura Balun, VA's Voluntary Service director, and Stephanie Burns of the Washington D.C. VA Medical Center. The pair – approached by the Legion to participate with the organization during the event – signed up 53 volunteers for VA facilities: 19 in D.C. and the rest in states such as California, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
Balun, who called partnering with the Legion a "no-brainer," was ecstatic with the results. "I wasn't expecting this," she said. "It means a lot to us that the Legion asked us to come here and participate today. It shows the kind of partnership we have."
Also impressed with the results was American Legion National Commander James E. Koutz, who stopped by the booth to not only write a thank-you letter, but also register to volunteer for VA in his home state of Indiana.
"I think this a great turnout," Koutz said. "I think it was a great opportunity to share with people all the things – all the great things – that we do. And we got a lot of great letters to give to veterans. Those are going to be a big momentum getter for those veterans recovering in the hospital.
"I really had no idea what to expect from this, but I think it really raised people's awareness about The American Legion today. It was great for us to be here."
For more photos from the Legion booth on Saturday, go to the Legion's National Headquarters Facebook page .