Photo by Henry Howard/The American Legion

First person: A California American Legion College journey

The instructor’s booming baritone voice blasts through the upstairs conference room of Larry E. Holmberg Post 731 in Linda Vista, Calif. I can see three beads of sweat collect on the district commander’s temple just below the leather-lined rim of his American Legion cap as he barks sagely – his hands a wild extension of his voice – on the merits of mentorship and leadership.

Chris Yates briefly makes eye contact with me before taking a breath midsentence and sprinting to the front of the room. As he dashes, he points to numbers on the screen with all the enthusiasm and animation of a professional football coach relaying strategy in a crowded locker room.

“How many veterans are there in California?” he asks the first Department of California American Legion College class. “Almost two million,” a student responds. The next slide offers a breakdown of veteran population by major city. Inspired, I open my laptop and search the U.S. Census website for data on veterans in Santa Monica — 3,232 in 2016, or 3.5 percent of the population.

I’ve lived in Los Angeles since the early 90s. I moved to Santa Monica for middle school. It’s where I attended high school and where I took a few college classes before leaving for Marine Corps boot camp in June 2001, three months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

My journey through the April 27-29 California Legion College wasn’t as physically rigorous as my three-month stint at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. Instead of a bus, I departed by train. I didn’t set out before dawn this time, so I was able to see the day-lit landscape I traversed.

The conductor - not a shrieking drill instructor - called out the Old Town station and I stepped off the bus. I was not greeted by a platoon of yellow footprints on the asphalt, but by a row of cabs waiting for their next fare. During the drive, I thought about the application process to California Legion College.

I couldn’t believe I’d been accepted. I only have five years of continued membership under my belt. Last year, I had somehow convinced someone (hello, Jere) that I could manage a post’s administrative operations as adjutant. Maybe that was it. What also may have helped was that I was on the floor of the March Department Executive Committee meeting in Santa Maria when Department Assistant Judge Advocate Autrey James announced he and others were organizing the program and looking for participants. I emailed him immediately from my phone, even before he concluded his address to the chair and took his seat.

The cab approached Linda Vista’s Post 731. The imposing building sits on a big corner lot at a busy intersection in the south San Diego neighborhood, about four miles east of Mission Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

Post 731 Commander Sam Flores greeted me at the door. I arrived early, so we spoke for a while about his post and compared notes about maintaining an active membership. Behind him, in the back of the lounge, sat a large chalkboard with the branches of service scrawled across in columns with hashmarks below each.

“We like to ask people to mark what branch they were in each day and at the end of the month we fly that branch’s flag,” he says while handing me a piece of chalk. “Oorah,” he barks as I make my mark.

After heading up stairs, I am met with a room full of faces, many new and others familiar. I walk around the room and shake hands before taking my seat up front at one of the tables set up for students.

The curriculum is intense and comprehensive, more so than the training The American Legion offers its members online. Several of the Legion College courses resonated with me, especially resolution drafting. The experience isn’t just an exchange of information and ideas, but also seeks to affect positive change outside the classroom setting as far north as Sacramento, where my group’s resolution will be read on the floor of the Department of California’s June convention.

Each of the 18 students were required to write a resolution based on three prompts offered by instructor Mick Sobczak, department president of the American Legion Riders. Sobczak looks like a biker when he wants to, but shed his beret and leather vest today in favor of a white collared shirt and bright red tie to “remember everyone deployed” for RED Friday. His Legion cap sits atop his long salt and pepper hair, pulled back tight into a neat pony tail. His American flag forearm tattoo peaks out from beneath his cuff and his deep voice projects authority while also offering a bit of foxhole nudging while he chastises me for missing the first assignment due at the beginning of class – my first Legion College lesson learned.

We’re then put into four-member districts and required to refine our resolutions before voting on moving one of them forward. My draft was admittedly an unambitious proposal to fund future California American Legion Colleges with both the application fees levied on members applying to the program and membership dues diverted from a soon-to-be created alumni association, an idea Ken George, my district facilitator, helped me develop.

During our breakout session, I yielded to fellow mock district member Robert Bower, who proposed the Department Executive Committee create a budget line item of $21,000 to fund three annual college sessions. Bower, who serves as legislative commissioner for California’s Area 5, calmly and artfully defends our adopted resolution against scrutiny at the podium.

“It’s important to this organization that we facilitate sustained growth and that means having a well-educated and trained cadre of leadership,” he says in a quiet and calculated cadence.

The resolutions call on the Department of California to fund the college and create a college alumni association, but also endorse burying the ashes of retired U.S. flags in national cemeteries across the country.

I’ll be presenting these resolutions to my post and district for approval ahead of convention. While our post officers are given the latitude to make their own command decisions, we’ve still got to operate within the regulations set by our parent organization and its subordinate bodies. We also, as an organization, need to do a better job at carrying out our unified message about the core values of The American Legion, organized into our four pillars: Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation, National Security, Americanism, and Children & Youth.

Several states across the country also have their own long-established department colleges we can look to for inspiration and guidance.

Our national parent in Indianapolis sees the value in educating Legionnaires. Every year, dozens of American Legion members are accepted into National Legion College, where they are given the opportunity to learn more about the Legion’s core values and ways to implement the many programs it facilitates. National even passed a resolution in 2012 calling on departments to create their own Legion Colleges.

On Sunday, it’s time for Legion College graduation. Department Commander Robert Heinisch addresses the class, delivering words of congratulations and encouragement. Upon talking with other Legionnaires about my experience, I realize there’s a clamoring for this type of education all over the Golden State.

Legionnaires across California support this program and I hope our resolution helps make that a reality.

Overall, I think the class was effective and when paired with the online basic training I took and the experiences I've had at department and national conventions will leave a lasting impression on me. With the notes I took during the weekend training and the course materials I have access to, I feel confident I can effectively transmit much of what I've learned to the officers in my post. If I can replicate even a fraction of the enthusiasm emitted by the instructors, that will supercharge the revitalization we've been working on this past year.