Leave it to Mitchell Keil to conceive an extreme challenge as part of The American Legion 100 Miles for Hope campaign.
Keil, commander of American Legion Post 125 in North Adams, Mass., developed a 100-mile relay from his post to another as a way to celebrate the conclusion of the third annual fitness/wellness challenge.
“If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it to the extreme,” said Keil, a Marine Corps veteran. “What better way than to go from North Adams, Massachusetts, to Sutton, Massachusetts, which is clear across the state. Luckily, I got a nice team together who could help me.”
His team was made up of American Legion Family members who rallied to support Keil and ended up doing most of the walking during the 33-hour relay on Aug. 13-14. The reason: Keil tore his ACL a few months ago.
“I haven’t been doing that much walking in the past couple of months,” he said during a break at American Legion Post 306 in Paxton. “They all said they were going to help and they have stepped up in a big way. I wouldn’t be here, at the Paxton post, for breakfast, without them.”
The Legion Family group included his wife and Auxiliary member, Kaitlyn, their 8-month-old daughter, Raegan, friend Shaun Muldowney and Post 125 Squadron Commander Joseph Poplaski. They were among those who walked through the night in support of the 100-mile relay.
“I’ve always donated my time to the Legion,” said Popalski, whose dad served in the Army during World War II. “It’s important to the veterans. I was never able to serve but I just wanted to give back. I do what I can.”
During a break at American Legion Post 435 in Worcester, Poplaski said the Legion Family was committed to completing the vision Keil created.
“He was hurtin’. I’m hurtin’. We’re all hurtin’. But we just had to come together and do it for him. We didn’t want to let him down. There was no turning back.”
Keil accompanied the team the entire way, mostly in the support vehicle but walked the final stretch to a grand welcoming in Sutton.
Throughout the walk, Post 125 team members shared their journey on Facebook, securing donations for The American Legion Veterans & Children Foundation (V&CF). They also received some contributions from those they encountered along the way, including one memorable donor.
During a night-time stop, a panhandler approached the group to ask for money. “We told him what we were doing and he ended up giving us a dollar,” Keil said.
In Sutton, a contingent of roughly 100 American Legion Family members, law enforcement officials and others escorted the relay team on the final stretch. Waving American and Legion Family flags, the group completed the challenge, walking under a huge American flag, welcoming them to Post 414.
Months ago when Keil contacted Post 414 Commander Bill Hallene about the idea, he quickly agreed to host the finish line celebration.
“It really brings the Legion name out and makes us as a focal point to what we do around here,” said Hallene, an Army veteran. “We do a lot for the community and veterans but we don’t do it for the accolades. This walk is great and it brings into focus what the Legion Family can provide people.”
Hallene noted the post’s Legion Family is committed to supporting the community’s veterans and families, which ties in to the foundation’s beneficiaries.
“That’s one of the biggest things we do,” he said. “When I joined the Legion 25 years ago, it was to return to my community and help other people who are less fortunate than I am. We’re here for every veteran, every child. That’s what our mission is. It’s good to know where the money is going and that it is for a good cause.”
But Post 414 did more than provide food, water and shelter for the relay team.
“When you contacted me, I thought this was a great idea — and this thing, through the goodness of the Legion — it became huge and it’s amazing. I’m honored that you guys picked Sutton as your ending point,” Hallene said, handing Keil a $1,000 check for the V&CF via the 100 Miles for Hope challenge.
Post 414 isn’t stopping there. Members are already plotting to return the favor, conducting their own relay next year and finishing at Post 125.
“The Central Massachusetts Legion is really involved, and it’s not really surprising what this turned into,” Hallene said. “It turned into a really nice event.”
Department of Massachusetts Commander Sally Nay, a member of Post 130 in Palmer, was among those who greeted the weary walkers in Sutton.
“It shows that the next generation is actively being part of The American Legion and making sure their fellow soldiers and veterans are taken care of,” Nay said. “Mitch, who is spearheading this, is a younger veteran. He’s been doing other projects in his community. This shows me that the Legion has a lot of support.”
Nay pointed out that both Post 125 and 414 share common threads — Legion Family members that strengthen the post.
“Both posts are very active and do a lot of different things,” she said. “They really do bring the Legion to the forefront (in their communities).”
Nay is looking forward to Post 414’s plans to do their 100-mile relay next spring. “I think that would be a wonderful idea,” she said. “And maybe there will be other members who would want to go part of the way with them and help raise money across the state of Massachusetts to raise money for this event. That would be wonderful.”