'People around this country saw us at our best'

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American Legion National Commander Brett Reistad wore a smile while waving to the crowd for the entire 5.5 miles, two-hour ride on the Legion Family’s Tournament of Roses Parade float. And after almost an hour had passed since Reistad stepped off the float, the same smile remained.

The experience stayed with, and likely will stay with, the national commander.

“It was a rush. It was a big rush,” Reistad said. “It was exciting. You couldn’t have had a better, more supportive crowd out there. It was like a parade that had no ending. It was just a phenomenal experience. I don’t think that there’s anything that I’ve ever done that compares to this level of excitement.”

The parade had an estimated 700,000 people watching in person, while another 4 million were expected to tune in on either ABC, NBC, Hallmark Channel, Univision, RFD-TV or KTLA. “I really think it gave us some fantastic exposure,” Reistad said. “People were very supportive as we passed. A lot of ‘God bless the USA’ and ‘thank you for your service.’ And they never stopped. The crowds just went on and on and on.

“And there were Legion Family members along the way that were very supporting, yelling out their post numbers. It was really great."

The American Legion float carried the message of “Still Serving America,” highlighting every section of the Legion Family and its various youth programs. All of those components tied into the float’s celebrating of The American Legion’s centennial being celebrated this year.

“I don’t think there was a better time to do this,” Reistad said. “(Having) the goodwill of being out there, and people refreshing their knowledge and understanding of what The American Legion is, knowing we’re out there still doing our good work.”

The float’s riders arrived at their spot in the lineup at around 6 a.m. It didn’t take long for those walking up and down Orange Grove Boulevard to stop to thank those on the float and grab a photo op with one or all of the four Medal of Honor recipients riding along the Legion’s float.

Once the parade began, those lining Orange Grove, Colorado Boulevard, Sierra Madre Boulevard and Villa Street – most areas along the route jam packed with parade watchers three, four and five persons deep – greeted those on the float with cries of “thank you,” applause, salutes and often standing ovations.

Those reactions moved Walter “Joe” Marm – who joined fellow Medal of Honor recipients Hershel “Woody” Williams, Ron Rosser and Britt Slabinski on the float. “It’s very humbling,” Marm said. “We’re in the greatest country in the world. It’s just an honor to be here representing some of the veterans of our country. It’s very special.”

Marm said before that he felt honored to be in the parade. That opinion didn’t change after the parade. “It was very, very special,” he said. “The crowds were tremendous. It was just an honor to be here.”

Cristina Molina, a member of Hollywood Auxiliary Unit 43 and an American Legion Rider, also felt moved by the response from parade watchers, for a very special reason.

“It reminds me of my dad, my dad’s service to this country and how proud I am of what he did,” Molina said. “It makes me feel proud to be an American because veterans sacrifice a lot. They go and they serve to protect this country, and to hear people acknowledge that, especially the little kids, it’s amazing.”

Sharing the float with Marm and the other Medal of Honor recipients also made an impact on Molina. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was amazing. Humbling. You look around and you’re on there with four Medal of Honor recipients. It’s surreal. I couldn’t believe it the whole time.”

U.S. Air Force Airman First Class Kathleen Clingerman, one of a handful of active-duty military personnel on the float, said she was proud to represent her branch of service. The experience on the float itself “was overwhelming, I guess, for just the appreciation that people have for the service,” she said.

For Sons of The American Legion National Adjutant Anthony Wright, the opportunity to ride on the float was “very eye-opening. The experience was great because I felt as a member of the Sons of The American Legion I was honoring my grandfather’s and my father’s service.”

Wright was happy to see the Legion Family featured as prominently as it was on the float. “The American Legion Family is that: a family,” he said. “To have The American Legion, The American Legion Auxiliary, the Sons of The American Legion and the American Legion Riders shows unity and that we’re one group.”

American Legion Past National Commander Dan Dellinger came to California last week to help with decorating the float. Seeing it go from a bare frame to fully decorated and passing along the parade route while he watched from the viewing stands was a memorable experience.

“I was sitting across the aisle (in the stands) from a two-star Marine general, and he stood up and clapped (when the float passed),” Dellinger said. “I thought that was very apropos for our float. Everyone in the stands gave a warm welcome to us. That made me feel really good.”

Dellinger believes having a float in the 130th running of what is one of the world’s most well-known parades made a positive impact on the nation’s view of The American Legion.

“I think it was a great step forward,” he said. “I think there was a lot of pride across the country. I think people around this country saw us at our best. One hundred years of service to America, and we’re going to continue to do so.”