Each year in Indiana, local American Legion posts coordinate and participate in a Blue Star Salute on Flag Day that honors all military families in the state. This year's event honored more than 300 families with sons, daughters, husbands and wives serving in uniform.
The day-long event included a musical performance by Michael Peterson, dance performances, the Indianapolis Colts cheerleaders, speeches by civil and military leaders, a parachuting demonstration, and about 1,500 American Legion Riders and other veterans on motorcycles.
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
Jeri Scott of Mooresville, Ind., and her 12-year-old daughter Makayla were two of the people being honored that day. Jeri's husband, Bobby, couldn't attend because he was serving with the Army Reserve in Iraq.
"It's wonderful to be here around so many military families and this support network," Scott said. "It means more than people realize. You feel like you're all alone until you come to an event like this."
While the annual Blue Star Salute in Indianapolis is a heartfelt tribute to the sacrifices of servicemembers and military families, the Legion's grass-roots network honors them in many other ways at the department and local level.
• The Legion's Department of Michigan operates Wilwin Lodge in the Upper Peninsula, a 700-acre retreat that provides rest and recuperation for returning servicemembers and their families; the department's chaplain, Eddie Brown, has created a "Buddy to Buddy" program that allows older veterans to help out those who served in OEF/OIF.
• Billings, Mont., Post 4 worked with local businesses to provide a video-conferencing center for military families to communicate with their loved ones overseas.
• In California, American Legion Auxiliary Unit 277 - along with several Legion posts, Rider chapters and Sons of The American Legion squadrons - have developed an Impacting Military Families program, helping out expectant mothers on active duty.
• In Wyoming, a grieving mother who lost her son in Iraq spent four days seeking counseling before contacting Legion department headquarters; less than an hour later, a bereavement counselor contacted the woman.
• The Legion family in Erie County, N.Y., collected clothing, household goods and non-perishable food items, which were distributed to military families at the National Guard Armory in Buffalo.
"Our organization is ready, willing and able to work with DoD in providing even more outreach," says Barry Searle, director of The American Legion National Security/Foreign Relations Division. "We have American Legion posts at the local level, departments at the state level and a national staff to help coordinate community efforts. We also have dedicated and well-trained service officers in each state, whose job is to help veterans and military families."
The Sea of Good Will
DoD's Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has issued a position paper with a title that echoes a phrase used by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to describe the groundswell of support Americans have shown for those who serve in uniform: "Sea of Goodwill: Matching the Donor to the Need."
The paper describes a "reintegration trinity" that helps to ensure the seamless transition of military families back into the civilian world: employment, education and access to health care for life. By no coincidence, The American Legion is a longtime advocate of veterans employment, GI Bill education benefits and high-quality VA health care.
The authors of the paper, Maj. John W. Copeland and Col. David W. Sutherland, write that "No single agency or organization has the manpower, resources, or intellectual capital to provide a lifetime of care and support to our military family." Therefore, communities "must attempt to recognize the difficulties a separated Service member may be going through" when he or she returns home. "Selected institutions of higher learning, non-profit organizations, non-governmental organizations, community leaders, and businesses are the key players in what is already a strong Sea of Goodwill."
Peter Gaytan, executive director of The American Legion's Washington office, says the DoD paper is a solid blueprint for dramatically improving America's support network for military families.
"The American Legion is already part of that ‘Sea of Goodwill,'" Gaytan says. "But reading that paper, it becomes obvious that the ‘elephant in the room' is the Legion and other veterans service organizations. VSOs aren't mentioned one single time in a 21-page document, which tells me that DoD isn't especially aware of how much we actually do for military families."
Gaytan says the Legion works on many levels and some of its efforts get more public recognition and media attention than others. "We've been in the national media, criticizing Prudential Insurance for making money off of servicemembers' death benefits, or taking JPMorgan Chase to task because it was overcharging military families on their mortgage interest," he says.
The American Legion is continuously engaged in veterans issues at the national level, lobbying Congress, meeting with the president and White House staff, and advising federal agencies. "This is certainly an important part of what we do, but most of our outreach efforts are at the community level," Gaytan says, "Ask a parent whose spouse is deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan whether it's more important to have a heated home in the wintertime, or to see my face on television. While it's important for the Legion to have a strong voice on veterans issues, most of what we do for military families in their communities goes unnoticed by the national media."
At a time when the federal budgets are being cut, Searle thinks DoD could benefit from a closer relationship with the Legion's outreach programs. "One thing they could do is make it easier for us to contact servicemembers who could use our help," he says. "That would speed up the process because we wouldn't have to rely on word-of-mouth so much."
The Right Thing To Do
While the Legion lobbies DoD to get access to contact information for returning troops, it uses other means to establish connections with servicemembers. One, the "Adopt-a-Unit" program, works through the military's family support structure. American Legion posts reach out to platoons, companies or even battalions deployed overseas, providing gifts and comfort items to the troops and assisting their families back home when a water pipe breaks, a furnace goes out or someone needs a ride to the doctor's office.
Legion staffer Joe Sharpe, whose Economic Division helps coordinate about 100 job fairs a year nationwide for veterans and servicemembers - including one Aug. 27 during the 2011 National Convention in Minneapolis - says the Legion works hard to get more jobs for veterans and reservists. That effort goes all the way down to the local level.
"One of our Legion posts outside Fort Bragg (N.C.) ran a local job fair and got full-time work for three unemployed reservists," Sharpe says. "A few other Legion posts outside Fort Drum (N.Y.) got together and held a job fair, and six reservists found employment there. And the Legion posts also ‘adopted' the Family Readiness Groups for two companies of the 10th Mountain Division."
Besides adopting units and hosting job fairs, The American Legion actively recruits servicemembers and returning veterans. Each year, The American Legion's national staff travels the country, revitalizing Legion posts and creating new ones.
"One very important way we reach out to younger troops and their families is to help them start their own brand-new American Legion post," says Billy Johnson, the Legion's Membership director. "We sometimes read stories in the media about how the Legion doesn't have as many members as it used to, and the stereotype of our being no more than a bunch of old men drinking in bars. But, to paraphrase Mark Twain, news of our demise is premature."
The Legion usually recruits more than 200,000 new members each year. "A good number of them are servicemembers or younger veterans, and part of the reason they join with us is because their families - or families of friends - have received direct assistance from Legionnaires," Johnson says.
Johnson recalls what one American Legion post did as its first good deed after being revitalized. "A young soldier dearly wanted to send his wife some flowers," he says. "He was deployed and had no credit card, so he called us at the national headquarters to see if we could help. We contacted the Department of Georgia, and it immediately dispatched a crew from that revitalized post, who bought two dozen roses - with some candy, too - and personally delivered them on behalf of the soldier to his wife."
That story, Johnson says, is one of many he could tell about how The American Legion reaches out to military families. "Our volunteers do these good deeds because it is simply the right thing to do," he says. "And they do so quite well. Because each of them has served in uniform, and they understand the hardships that military families endure."