Four Kentucky Legionnaires  and a chaplain traveled 9,000 miles to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, Africa, to educate U.S. troops on how The American Legion can assist them now and when they return home.
"I just believe you've got to go where the troops are," said Dr. Peter Trzop, team leader and commander of Post 121 in Bardstown, Ky. "Then, when they hear about The American Legion down the road, there's a pretty good chance they've got a good memory of us."
The Kentucky National Guard 2nd Battalion, 138th Field Artillery Charlie Battery was briefed on Department of Veterans Affairs benefits and health care, American Legion membership, and the Legion's Family Support Network and Temporary Financial Assistance programs.
Preparation for the deployment to Africa began in April 2012 when Trzop had the idea that "if we could meet with soldiers during their deployment, then a lot of the stress associated with leaving family and home would be gone, and it would be a better time to have their full attention."
With Trzop's idea in mind, Post 121 immediately formed a relationship with Charlie Battery — the most highly decorated Guard unit in Kentucky. The post hosted picnics and Christmas parties for the troops and their families, and when Charlie Battery departed to Camp Atterbury in Indiana before deploying to Africa, Legion Riders escorted the troops the entire 150 miles on motorcycles.
Post 121 has been "a huge blessing to our unit," said Charlie Battery Commander Capt. Aaron Vansickle during an interview with Capt. Daniel Van Horn with Charlie Battery. "To have them fly halfway around the world to visit and talk to our soldiers demonstrates the level of support they have for us and our families."
Trzop began preparing for the overseas deployment in July 2012 once he received approval and support from Vansickle. He formed a team of Legionnaires who could "offer something of real value to the soldiers," he said. "We wanted to give them access to help they could get right now."
The team included service officer Anthony Noe and Jim Lish, both from Post 81 in Leitchfield; licensed medical massage therapist Pam Blain from Post 157 in Shepherdsville; and chaplain Doug Alexander from Bardstown. The team raised more than $15,000 to cover their travel expenses from help statewide by Legion posts, community groups, businesses, individuals, Auxiliary units and other veterans service organizations. Meanwhile, Trzop tackled the paperwork needed to obtain clearances for the team to go to Djibouti.
When the team landed in Djibouti on April 2, Charlie Battery troops were there to greet them at the aiport. "I (was) humbled by the outpouring of troops to greet us and thank us for caring enough to come and see them," Alexander said. "I can honestly say that they needed us just as much as we needed them."
Several briefings were conducted with the troops where Blain offered massages, Alexander provided chaplaincy services, Trzop discussed the Legion's support for them, and Lish and Noe outlined VA benefits. "After the briefings, some of the troops just came up and hugged us," Lish said. "It almost made me tear up. They knew we were there for them."
Noe was also inspired by the military servicemembers desire to accept help, to learn about their military benefits and to be connected with home.
"We had a soldier come up with tears in his eyes," Noe said. "He told us how much it meant to him that we cared enough to raise our own money and take our time to come over and help them.
"And another soldier was losing his home while he was serving his country. We gave him information and different ways to save his home. We gave him the phone number of a realtor who could help him."
Together, the team signed up more than 125 new Legion members from 14 different states. "These people are the Legion's future," Blain said. "You could see it in their eyes — they got the message. They were so excited to see us. It felt so good to serve those who serve us."
Since the team has returned home, Trzop has been formulating a plan to train other teams to make similar journeys. "We've been talking about a possible Afghanistan or Jordan trip," he said. "And I can envision sending teams to fixed bases like those in England, Germany or Japan."
However, Alexander feels that no matter what happens in the future, the Legion's message will continue to be carried to the troops.
"Two organizations were transformed with this mission of better serving our veterans overseas," he said. "This vision will truly revolutionize how we take care of our soldiers."