American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett walks with fellow Legionnaires during the Walk for Veterans in Baltimore. (Photo by Matt Roth)

'We need to be able to tell our stories'

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Right after Dale Barnett was elected national commander of The American Legion last September at the national convention in Baltimore, the retired Army lieutenant colonel - and high school history teacher - took his family to visit Fort McHenry, the place where the battle was waged that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

So it was appropriate that he would return to Baltimore and Fort McHenry to lead one of the awareness walks for veterans that are part of his commander’s initiative. More than 100 veterans, family members and supporters – led by 20 teens who are members of the Young Marines from Jarrettsville, Annapolis and Southern Maryland – joined him March 19 for the mile-long walk around the rain-swept perimeter of the fort.

“The walks are designed to allow veterans to tell their stories and introduce others to their selfless service to our country,” said Barnett of Douglasville, Ga. He also coached high school cross-country, so the fitness component of his walks – one is scheduled for almost every weekend during his year as commander – is appropriate, too.

“I’ve walked on a frozen lake in Minnesota, and in front of an ox-drawn cart in Puerto Rico, in Hawaii and on the Hollywood Walk of Fame,” he told those who arrived to walk with him. “We walk for those who marched for us.”

Department of Maryland Adjutant Russell Myers, a member of Carroll Post 31 in Westminster, arranged for the walk in Maryland and said Fort McHenry was the obvious choice not only because of its role in history, but because its place in the Battle of Baltimore in 1814 serves to illustrate the long, long tradition of military service in this country.

“The American Legion supports us, so we decided to lend them our support with our feet,” said Jeffrey Kendrick of Baltimore, head of the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training, which serves homeless veterans. “Whenever we call, whatever we need, they get it for us. Food, clothing, bedding. Whatever we need.”

Kendrick came with about 30 walkers from the center, which is currently helping about 250 veterans get back on their feet after unemployment, mental illness, jail, homelessness or addiction. Barnett and other ranking members of the state and national American Legion toured what is fondly called “McVets” on North High Street in Baltimore before the walk.

Kendrick said more than 10,000 veterans have come through the doors of the center and 70 percent have left “with a job and a key,” meaning employment and housing.

Barnett has also used the walks in various state capitals to take the opportunity to testify in front of legislatures on matters of importance to veterans. And the walks raise money to help American Legion communities beset by natural disasters.

“We take this as an opportunity to connect people to our organization and with our national history,” he said. “We need to be able to tell our stories.”

Alex Whitney, vice commander of Post 31, was walking with his wife and three children. The former combat photographer with the Marine Corps said all three, including 7-year-old A.J., are determined to be members of the military. Sixteen-year-old Breanna plans to be a Navy nurse, he said. Barnett, a West Point graduate, encouraged walkers such as the Whitney family to share their stories during the chilly morning stroll.

Draven Marlowe, 15, of Huntingtown in Calvert County has already begun to write his military story. The son of a Marine, he was there in fatigues leading the walkers with other Young Marines. He is hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“I have a strong passion for supporting our veterans,” he said.