Last November, in a Massachusetts town along the Vermont border, a young mother who had just given birth to her second child was turned out on the streets by her parents. The woman's husband was a soldier serving in Afghanistan, and her parents did not approve of the war.
"They just tossed her out, along with her two children," says Steven Jimmo, state chairman of The American Legion's Family Support Network. "So the Red Cross called us up and we found her a suitable place to live."
Every day in The American Legion, those who once served are supporting those who currently serve. Read
Heroes to Hometowns, Operation Comfort Warriors, Temporary Financial Assistance and the Family Support Network benefit servicemembers and their families. Read
The National Emergency Fund can aid Legionnaires currently serving in the military, while the Legacy Fund benefits the children of servicemembers killed since 9/11. Read
It takes a grass-roots effort for any Legion program to work, and that is never more evident than when it comes to troop support. Read
Legionnaires moved quickly, working with the new landlord to get the homeless family settled. The night before Thanksgiving, Jimmo drove more than two hours to hand-deliver a check to the landlord for a security deposit. While inspecting the house, Jimmo and other Legionnaires discovered that a lot of basic housekeeping items were missing.
"So we contacted the local American Legion post and it responded immediately," Jimmo says. "They worked hard over the next 24 hours to get the necessary amenities. They provided curtains for the apartment, additional food, furniture and toys for the children. They made sure this young woman with her two infant children - whose father was on duty overseas - had a memorable Thanksgiving."
As in other states, The American Legion works closely with Massachusetts National Guard and reserve units, reaching out to help U.S. troops and their families. Jimmo says the Legion often helps military families avoid having their utilities turned off, homes foreclosed and other domestic calamities.
"We usually have companies beating down our doors, wanting to assist these families during their hour of need," Jimmo says. "So we've organized them into a network willing to do things at cost, which the Legion often covers. In all of these cases, the families in need are never asked to pay for anything."
"Veterans serving veterans" may be a commonly used phrase to describe The American Legion's mission, but the organization was founded 93 years ago on four pillars - one of which is national security. This includes supporting our men and women in uniform, as well as their families. And across the country, the Legion - from the national level to the local post - is living up to the principles and ideals of those who founded the organization in 1919.
Not only for veterans
American Legion National Commander Jimmie L. Foster says many people think his organization only helps veterans, "but that definitely is not the case. On any given day, one or more of our Legion posts is lending a hand to military families - everything from emergency rent payments to fixing a car or mowing a lawn."
Foster says the Legion was founded by active-duty troops who fought in France during World War I. "It's a fact that most of our members are veterans, but we also have a good number of active-duty, reserve and National Guard members," he said. "Anyone now serving in the military - or since the Desert Shield and Desert Storm campaigns - is welcome to join us."
With 2.4 million members and about 14,000 posts nationwide, The American Legion has many community-based resources and connections that help military families in ways the Department of Defense (DoD) cannot. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently said that communities need to take the lead in providing strong support networks for servicemembers and their families.
"It can't be done from Washington. It can be supported, but not led," Mullen said at a June 14 event in Washington. His wife, Deborah, added that government programs are often ineffective in helping military families. "We don't kill (federal) programs, and we need to do that."
The American Legion is well suited, Foster says, to work with DoD in providing more assistance for military families at the community level. "This is something we're very good at doing, something we've been doing for more than 90 years," Foster says. "Anyone can go to our Legion Town website and read about many of the ways - large and small - in which Legionnaires are honoring the service and sacrifices of our troops and their loved ones."
Outreach to military families
According to the research institute RTI International, married servicemembers make up 55 percent of active-duty forces and 48 percent of the reserves; more than 40 percent of America's servicemembers are parents. It is no small wonder that DoD has created Family Assistance Programs, Family Readiness Groups and other support services for military families.
Barry Searle, director of The American Legion's National Security/Foreign Relations division, says much of what the Legion does for servicemembers, their spouses, and children remains under the radar of DoD's senior leadership, "because most of the help we're giving is at the local level, outside the Beltway. But just about every day, we're making a difference in the lives of some military family out there."
In a recent informal survey that Searle did on outreach efforts, he received many responses from American Legion posts and departments on how they have been helping servicemembers and military families in dire situations.
• A Delaware reservist, his wife (who just lost her job), and six children, who had no fuel for their home in the dead of winter.
• A Massachusetts family who lost everything they owned in a fire while the spouse was deployed to Afghanistan.
• Servicemembers stationed at Fort Dix, N.J., who wanted to spend Thanksgiving with their families just before a 12-month deployment, but couldn't pay for their travel.
• An unemployed father in Virginia who couldn't afford to see his son graduate from Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, S.C.
• A Wyoming veteran waiting for his VA benefits, who needed food, roof repairs, some new windows and heater repair.
• An Air Force servicemember in California, with a 5-year-old son, who had her car broken into; everything was stolen, including her rent money.
• An active-duty Marine and double-amputee, who could not afford $3,000 for modifications to his home and a vehicle to accommodate his disability.
"In each of these cases and many, many more, Legionnaires took care of the problem," Searle says. "They bought the fuel, they paid for clothes, they bought the ticket, or fixed the roof. And what they couldn't do, they got patriotic businesses to do the rest. That's another great thing about the Legion - we don't just help as much as we can. We go out and get other people to lend a hand as well."
Friday: Learn about what Legion programs like Heroes to Hometowns, Operation Comfort Warriors and Temporary Financial Assistance are doing for today's military and their families.
Saturday: Read about how the Legion is there for the children of servicemembers killed in the war on terror through The American Legion Legacy Scholarship Fund.
Sunday: It takes a strong grassroots effort to fully support our men and women in uniform, as well as their families. The American Legion has that.
For a story and video about how Pennsylvania Legionnaires recently stepped up to help out a struggling military family, click here.