Before he was even 10 years old, Jonathon Blank dreamed of becoming a Marine. As a youngster in Augusta, Kan., he camouflaged his face and uniformed himself for combat. He had his picture taken, framed it in Popsicle sticks and scribbled in felt pen, "U.S. Marine Corps, sharpshooter or fighter." So it was no surprise to anyone in his family when he enlisted shortly after his 18th birthday.
Last year, when Blank learned his unit would soon deploy to Afghanistan, he decided to extend his tour in order to go with them. "I wasn't going to let my guys go without me," he remembered. "I didn't have to give it much thought. If something happened over there to one of them, I'd always wonder, ‘If I was there, could I have changed anything? Could I have helped them?'"
Last Oct. 26, Marine Sgt. Blank was on a foot patrol in the Taliban-infested Helmand province of Afghanistan, with his Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marines Force Reconnaissance Battalion. Blank stepped on an improvised explosive device and was thrown several feet. When he came to seconds later he knew something was terribly wrong.
"I was like OK, something really bad just happened, but I didn't know what," he said. "It was kind of like a dream. I remember as I started to regain consciousness, smoke and dust was everywhere. I started crawling because I knew my legs were gone. I didn't have to look. Then the pain came, and I knew that was it."
Upon hearing the news, Blank's family began preparing for his return. So did the Kansas American Legion Riders. In the next few months, Legion Riders and the American Legion family led efforts across Kansas to raise more than $125,000 to help the 23-year-old Marine and his family to cope with expenses associated with his injuries and recuperation.
"Our original goal was to raise $10,000 to $15,000," said American Legion Rider Sam Langhofer. "Blank's heart-wrenching story touched anyone who heard it, and we soon realized we were going to get much more than we first anticipated."
The success of the Jonathon Blank project was possible because communities across Kansas joined hands with Legion Riders, as well as the entire Legion family, to show their gratitude for Blank's service and sacrifice to his country, said Kansas Legion Rider Chairman Don Behrens.
"Legion Riders are part of the military family," Behrens said. "When our military brothers or sisters are injured or need help, it's our duty to step forward. That's what we do. As Legion Riders, our mission is to serve our veterans, our communities and the programs of The American Legion."
"Legion Riders are not only an asset to The American Legion, but also to their communities, fellow veterans and their families," said American Legion Department of Kansas Adjutant Charles Yunker. "Riders are quick to aid or assist at a moment's notice - be it a funeral escort, a welcome-home ceremony for a returning soldier, airman, sailor or Marine, or to give a helping hand to a fellow veteran who finds himself or herself homeless."
The Kansas Legion Riders aggressively pursue opportunities to help others, Yunker added.
Last year, the group raised more than $70,000 for the American Legion Legacy Scholarship Fund, said Dave Schoonover, Kansas Legacy Run road captain. The Legacy Fund provides college scholarship funds for children of military men and women who lost their lives serving their country since Sept. 11, 2001.
"(Kansas) had 11 riders and four passengers complete the entire 3,300-mile Legacy Run round trip to the Legion National Convention in Milwaukee," Schoonover said.
"The trip was a joy. The sad thing is that approximately 25 young military men and women lost their lives protecting our way of life during the 12 days it took us to complete the ride. That's why we work so hard to raise money to assure those children have the means to attend college."
The 72 chapters and nearly 3,200 members of the Kansas American Legion Riders - with help from the state's entire American Legion family - raised more than $377,000 in 2010 alone and more than $1 million in the last three years to aid veterans and to support Legion programs.
Some of the group's accomplishments last year included:
• $159,411 for veterans projects
• $72,396 for Legion post projects
• $70,000 for the Legacy Scholarship Fund
• $45,537 for Children & Youth programs
• $33,562 for the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Riley
• $21,000 to purchase 35 televisions for the Kansas Soldiers Home
• $26,033 to Winfield Veterans Home, Kansas Veterans Home at Fort Dodge and the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Riley
• $5,100 to purchase 30 smart pens for wounded warriors
• $2,550 for turkeys, food baskets, gift cards and checks for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for wounded warriors and their families
Legion Riders chapters of all sizes - which range from six members to 236 in the department's 72 groups - contribute substantially to the efforts. Donations from individual chapters in 2010 ranged from $400 to $18,000. Chapter projects are as simple as paying American Legion membership dues for active-duty troops to raising $10,000 for the Legacy Fund.
Not all Kansas Legion Rider projects are about the money. Last year, members logged nearly 310,000 in volunteer hours to support local activities and Legion programs. Legion Riders and Patriot Guard Riders provided escorts and security at several military and veteran funerals. They attended troop send-offs, welcomed home military men and women returning from deployments, and visited local VA hospitals, veterans homes, and soldiers at the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Riley.
Two Wichita homeless veterans were recently laid to rest with full military honors, and Kansas Legion Riders were there to take part.
"These two men (Navy veteran Franklin Myers and Marine veteran Kenneth Calhoun) were homeless and had no next of kin," Legion Rider Ron Herndon said. "These two departed veterans honorably served our country, and they deserve the respect of a full military funeral. We honor them for everything they did."
Kansas Riders serve as pallbearers and flag carriers in the Dignity Memorial Homeless Veterans Burial Program. Gold Star Mothers accept the American flags draping the coffins of the homeless veterans. More than 1,800 funeral service providers sponsor the nationwide program.
More than 50 Wichita-area Legion Riders recently gathered in a school parking lot to form a ride to welcome home Jared Smith, a young soldier who sustained injuries from an IED explosion. Smith and his family gathered on the front lawn awaiting the two-by-two parade of U.S. flag-adorned motorcycles. The roar of revving motorcycle engines reverberated throughout the Smiths' neighborhood, leading more than a few to investigate the unusual activity. Many then joined the Riders in a homecoming celebration.
"It was an awesome thing to see," said a surprised Smith, as he greeted each Rider with a hug. "I knew something was going on, but had no idea until I saw you Legion Riders round the corner. You don't know how much this means to me. Thank you all for what you do."
After introductions and a gift exchange, Smith shared his battlefield story with the veterans filling his front lawn - not as strangers but as fellow warriors with a common bond.
Smith explained that the IED explosion was only his first wound of the day. As a buddy carried him from the battlefield, he was hit again - this time by enemy gunfire. Later, the helicopter transporting him to the hospital experienced trouble.
Riders, family, friends and neighbors barely stifled a laugh when one Legion Rider quipped, "Sounds like it was not a bad day you were having, Jared, but a very lucky day. You made it home."
The fact that the Kansas Legion Riders - many of them old enough to be his grandfather - cared enough to help raise more than $125,000 to help ease the burden of his battlefield wounds gives Jonathon Blank pause.
"I've thought about it a lot," Blank said. "At the end of the day, in my mind, there is no generation gap when it comes to military men and women. We can sit and talk about day-to-day experiences, frustrations, fears, and all of us get it. So, for that reason, I'm not a bit surprised that veterans of a different era are here for us young guys. I can't say enough about how thankful I am to have the support and respect of The American Legion Riders and The American Legion family. War and the consequences of war is not a mystery to them. They get it."
James V. Carroll is the photo editor of The American Legion Magazine.