Part of supporting U.S. troops is taking care of the families of servicemembers - not just while the servicemember is active duty, but in the unfortunate circumstance that servicemember doesn't come.
In 2001, The American Legion created The American Legion Legacy Scholarship Fund to help finance the higher education of children whose mothers or fathers have died while serving in the military since Sept. 11, 2001. Thus far, more than 80 such scholarships have been awarded.
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
Jill Druskis, director of The American Legion Children and Youth Division, says the Legacy Scholarship is an especially appropriate way to honor the men and women who have died on active duty, "because they help the children of our fallen heroes to realize a secure and productive future. A good college education doesn't come cheap, and we believe our Legacy Scholarships are a very meaningful way to honor those who have died serving America."
One scholarship recipient, Eva Marie Witt of Springfield, Ohio, lost her father while he was serving in the Air Force. "I just had a waitressing job, $3.50 an hour plus tips," Witt says. "I wasn't going to pay for college with that."
Witt recalls that she and her family were very thankful when news of the Legacy scholarship arrived. "It's just so helpful that I've been able to pay for my college, and not have that extra worry and extra stress on top of everything that I'm already dealing with," she says.
Country music star Michael Peterson, who has performed several times for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, attends many American Legion functions and is a spokesperson for the Legacy Scholarship Fund.
"Sometimes giving money doesn't seem like a big deal," Peterson says. "But when you meet the young person whose life was changed - who went to college without having to worry about it, who got the help and assistance they would have received from their mom or their dad - you see the gratitude in their eyes.
"More importantly, you see the fruit of their life because they got a chance to get an education. There's no way at all to put a value on that."
The American Legion also offers several other scholarships for higher education.
American Legion Riders
With more than 100,000 members and about 1,200 chapters across the country, American Legion Riders play a major role in fundraising and outreach to military families.
Each year since 2006, they take to the highways on their motorcycles for the annual Legacy Run, attending Legion events along the route and raising money for scholarships. The event ends when hundreds of them arrive in the city where the Legion's annual national convention is taking place. The 2011 Run has a goal of $450,000.
Erin Stein, whose father died while serving as an Air Force pilot, received a Legacy Scholarship and recently graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in veterinary medicine.
"I've had the privilege of meeting several of the Riders, and it was a great honor for me, and I definitely have a high respect for these people," Stein says. "And I would greatly encourage anybody that has the ability, to not only sponsor (a scholarship) but also to possibly ride."
The Legacy Scholarship not only made Stein "extremely happy," but also made it easier for her to attend college, "because I didn't have to worry quite so much about the finances. I really appreciate the generosity of the donors."
Last year, The American Legion Riders and other donors raised $634,000 for Legacy Scholarships; in five years, the total is more than $2.2 million.
"They're a great group to ride with and get to know," says Marty Justis, executive director of American Legion National Headquarters and a proud member of the Riders. "They've raised more than $2 million over five Legacy Runs, with each year's donation total larger than the last one. If they raised $1 million one of these years, I wouldn't be surprised. They are incredibly dedicated fundraisers."
Justis says the Legacy Run is one of many ways the Legion Riders support military families. The Texas and New Mexico chapters have their own fundraising rides that support wounded troops at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston and other facilities. The Riders serve as honor guards at military funerals, homecomings for wounded warriors, and welcome-home celebrations at airports from Boston to Honolulu.
"The Legion Riders have a phenomenal network, and they get a lot done at the local level that often goes unnoticed," Justis says. He gives one recent example where the Riders of American Legion Post 593 in Converse, Texas, contacted Riders in Hawaii and asked them to welcome home one of their post's lifetime members, Army Maj. Damon Delarosa, returning from his third tour in Iraq.
Michael Soucie, commander of American Legion Post 17 in Hawaii, and his Legion Riders chapter, met Delarosa at the airport, which caused the major's mother to send the Legionnaires an email: "... tears are in my eyes as I write this to say thank you so much. This last tour was the hardest for us for some reason. It means a lot to us that you were there."
American Legion Riders in Kansas raised $70,000 last year for the Legacy Scholarship Fund. They also logged many volunteer hours for a variety of activities, including visits to VA hospitals, veterans homes and the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Riley.
Recently, the Kansas Riders raised $125,000 to help cover medical expenses for Marine Sgt. Jonathon Blank, who lost both legs to an IED explosion in Afghanistan. The original goal was to raise about $15,000, but Kansas Rider Sam Langhofer says that Blank's story "touched everyone who heard it, and we soon realized we were going to get much more than we anticipated."
"I can't say enough about how thankful I am to have the support and respect of the Legion Riders and The American Legion family," Blank says. "War and the consequences of war are not a mystery to them. They get it."
National Emergency Fund
Tornadoes and floods ravaging the South and Midwest this spring were the costliest natural disasters to hit the United States since Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005 - in both lost lives and property damage. Nearly 100 reported tornadoes whirled their way across northwest Alabama in late April, killing 238 people and causing billions of dollars in property loss. From Tennessee to Louisiana, May floods claimed entire towns and thousands of acres of farmland along the Mississippi River. More tornadoes killed at least 14 people in Oklahoma City and more than 130 people in Joplin, Mo. Nearly $76,000 has been dispersed through the Legion's National Emergency Fund since April to posts and individuals affected by the above-mentioned disasters.
Any servicemember who has joined the Legion and has suffered damage and displacement from state or federally declared natural disasters qualifies for grants up to $1,500 from the NEF.
To read The Common Bond: Part 1, click here.
To read The Common Bond: Part 2, click here
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.