When Jimmie Foster got orders to Alaska, he didn't see a duty station listed - just a ZIP code. Not unusual for the Army. "I had no idea where I was going," he recalls with some amusement.
He made some calls, and a buddy in the personnel office helped him determine he'd been assigned to Fort Richardson.
On Halloween night 1985, Foster, his wife Rehta and their two sons arrived in Anchorage, and immediately fell in love with the state known as "America's last frontier."
He's called Alaska home ever since. "I don't like snow, which is kind of weird, because we get so much of it," he says. "But the beauty of the land and the people outweigh everything else."
Last month, at the 92nd National Convention in Milwaukee, The American Legion elected Foster national commander - Alaska's first. He's proud to shine the spotlight on a state he says takes good care of its nearly 70,000 veterans. Alaska's 33 Legion posts "fight tooth and nail for them, and their dependents," Foster says.
Through the Ranks. Foster's Legion résumé is solid. A 29-year member, he's volunteered at every level. Nationally, he's served on the Economic, Internal Affairs and Legislative commissions, and as Legislative chairman from 2006 to 2008. Prior to that, he represented Alaska on the National Executive Committee.
Back home, Foster served as department commander in 1999-2000. He has been on nearly every department committee, including Americanism, Economic, Employment, Internal Affairs, Legislative, Military Affairs and National Security. During his term as chairman of Membership & Post Activities, Alaska finished first in the nation on target-date membership.
Foster is a member of Spenard Post 28 in Anchorage, where he was adjutant for several years and served as commander in 1989-1990. He's also been the Western District adjutant for seven department commanders.
So, what hasn't he done? Forget a name or a face, for one thing.
"Jimmie's got a memory like a steel trap," says Gene Franks, Alaska's department adjutant. "He knows everybody and their wife, their dog, their next-door neighbor."
In other words, Foster's a people person. That goes a long way in a department as geographically vast as Alaska, where travel and communication are never taken for granted. One of its three districts is larger than the entire state of Texas, and in the winter, some towns and cities are accessible only by airplane or dog sled.
For Alaska's department commanders, then, keeping members on the same page - bringing them together to support a Legion goal or program - is no small feat. Leading 55 departments as the Legion's national commander is an even bigger challenge.
"I think if anybody can do it, Jimmie can," Franks says.
Farm Boy Turned Marine. Foster grew up in Delaware, Okla., the son of a World War II Army veteran and the fifth of 10 children. "I caught it from the top and the bottom," he says dryly.
And, occasionally, he caught it from his dad, who Foster says was a strict disciplinarian. "It didn't make a difference if you were male or female. If it was your time to get your little tail warmed up, that would happen."
Life revolved around the farm, and Foster remembers days when he kept the school bus waiting as he finished his chores. Outside class, he participated in 4-H, Future Farmers of America, and numerous livestock shows. He and his younger brother collected several trophies in sheep, pigs and even horses.
After high school, Foster attended and graduated from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College, where he studied agriculture education. During his second summer there, he met Rehta in a humanities class. One of her projects involved sewing a toga, and he was selected to be her model. That's how he remembers it, anyway.
Rehta says he first noticed her walking down the street and told his roommate he'd marry her. One day, after class, Foster walked her to her car and asked her out. For their first date, he showed up on a bicycle, sporting a sore ankle he'd injured in dormitory hijinks.
"We just clicked," she says.
A year later, they married. Foster took a job in the textile business, and later worked at a grocery. By this time, the couple had a son, and Foster was considering a military career. In 1973, on a bet with a co-worker, he joined the Marine Corps.
"He told me I wouldn't do it, and we both ended up going," Foster says. "We were in the same platoon at recruit training in San Diego. He went aviation, and I had the distinct honor of staying right there," at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot.
Rehta describes the period as "rough." U.S. troops were still in Vietnam, she worried her husband might have to go, and they'd just had a baby. After his two years were up, Foster left the Marines and they moved back to Oklahoma.
"At times, I regret getting out," he says. "I loved the Marines, and if they'd have cared about a family, I'd probably have stayed. They'd actually tell you, ‘If we'd wanted you to have a family, we'd have issued you one.' And they meant it. At the time, that was a big letdown."
Even so, Foster wasn't finished with the military. Six months later, he joined the Army and became a Morse code interceptor. The job was being phased out, but his clerical skills got him a regimental staff position. He did on-the-job training in legal, and chose it for his secondary MOS.
Over the next 18 years, Foster and his family went wherever the Army sent him: Fort Bliss, Texas, then Germany, then Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. He was drafted into Army Recruiting Command and went to school at Fort Harrison in Indianapolis, and spent the next three years doing recruiting out of Detroit. Finally, he ended up at Fort Richardson, Alaska.
Their sons, Christopher and Michael, loved the frequent moves. "They'd say, ‘All right, Dad, we've been here seven months. When are we leaving?' They kind of got into it," Foster says.
This post, though, was different. Where else do moose wander into your back yard? Where else can you catch a 54-pound king salmon, or a 202-pound halibut? Where else can you eat a Mondo burger, "the best burger in all of Alaska"? (Foster's a hamburger connoisseur, and declares he'd drive a hundred miles for a good one.)
In 1992, the Army assigned Foster to Fort Huachuca, Ariz., where he worked as a chief legal NCO. Though he wanted to stay in Alaska, "I couldn't get any more extensions," he says.
With only two years left to reach the magic 20, Foster vowed to return north as soon as he got out of the Army. True to his word, he was back in Anchorage by noon the day of his retirement.
Friend to Veterans. For the next 10 years, Foster worked as office manager for one of the oldest and largest law firms in Alaska. But his heart was in helping veterans. He began looking for a new job, and a conversation with Leon Bertram - at the time the Legion's leading department service officer in Alaska - took him in a new direction.
In 2006, Foster joined Bertram's staff, assisting veterans who are filing benefits claims. Whether he's on the road or in his office at the new VA clinic in Anchorage, he enjoys hearing their war stories and guiding veterans through the twists and turns of the claims process.
"A lot of them come to you when they're at wit's end," Foster says. "Some are embarrassed. If they're married, maybe one of them has lost a job and medical bills are piling up. They don't realize having a claim could mean monetary compensation for each 10 percent, and they're just astounded they waited 20, 30, 40, even 50 years to come in."
Occasionally, a veteran tells Foster that he read in the Alaska Legionnaire about a service officer in Anchorage who is campaigning to be national commander. "I say, ‘You're talking to him,'" he says. "They're like, ‘Are you kidding me, man? You're the guy, and you're helping me with my claim?'"
Jim Pisa, one of Alaska's department service officers, says Foster "goes above and beyond to help a veteran get what's due to him."
His knowledge of both sides of VA - health and benefits - makes Foster an ideal voice for The American Legion on Capitol Hill, Pisa adds. "He won't have to look around for an answer from somebody. He's going to be a great commander."
Foster is a strong believer in the Legion's Four Pillars, particularly mentoring youth. Oratorical, Boys State, American Legion Baseball - he's been involved with all of them. And throughout his year as commander, he'll encourage Legionnaires to support the Child Welfare Foundation.
"I think we do a great job with it, and I'm a sucker for kids," he explains. "They're our future. We can't shortchange them. You never know how your gift may change the life of somebody who could have gotten into drugs and alcohol or a gang. Don't give up on them."
As for Foster's own children, they left home years ago and have their own families now. Christopher works for the Army Acquisition Corps in Kaiserslautern, Germany. Michael drives trucks for Air Liquide in Whittier, Calif.
"They were our first priority," Rehta says. "To this day, Jimmie's really close to both of his sons."
As you'd expect, the Foster clan is a Legion family. Michael belongs to Sons of The American Legion, and Christopher is a dual Legion-SAL member. Rehta is well known in Alaska's American Legion Auxiliary, which she has served as a unit, district and department president.
"She's as active as I am, sometimes more," Foster says admiringly.
Like his predecessors as national commander, he's excited about the Legion's recent leaps forward using the necessary communication tools of today: a dynamic Web presence, online social networking, Twitter.
"We're getting new members every day," he says. "It's like the movie ‘Field of Dreams.' You believe, they come."
Nevertheless, he's convinced that traditional recruiting methods remain the Legion's No. 1 way of finding and keeping members. The Internet can't replace a warm handshake, a smile and the camaraderie found in a Legion post.
"If the computers stop working tomorrow, what are you going to do?" he says. "I think we're on the right path, but we can't forget the basics."
In fact, Foster's motto is Serving America's Veterans Every Day, or SAVED. He'd like to see Legionnaires personally interacting with other veterans daily, "whether they're just talking to a vet and making sure they know they're appreciated, or helping them out in some way, whatever they need."
Over the next year, expect to see that one-on-one approach in Foster's leadership style.
"If my BlackBerry is vibrating, I'm not going to read my message if we're having a conversation," he says, laughing. "I can wait. I believe in technology, but don't lose the personal touch."
Matt Grills is managing editor of The American Legion Magazine.