It started when I was in the U.S. Marines, deployed to Southwest Asia and sitting in my fighting hole waiting for mail call. The platoon sergeant threw a letter in my hole. The envelope said it was from an American Legion post. I opened the letter. It read, “Dear Sir, You are the newest member of The American Legion. Come see us when you get back and we will buy you a beer.”
I had just turned 21. There was not a drop of legal alcohol within 300 miles of my hole. This offer sounded pretty good to me. So when I completed my tour and returned to the States, I went to collect on that beer.
I went to the post meeting, found a chair and sat down. Some guys looked at me, strangely, over their drinks. Not one person approached or said a word to me, even after the meeting. I thought, “Even though I am a member, I guess I don’t belong here.” I left.
I knew enough about the programs and services of The American Legion to renew my membership, even though I didn’t go back to that post.
After my wife and I moved to a different town she encouraged me to get involved with the VFW or American Legion again. I tried the VFW but had the same results ... no one talked to me. Two times now I had tried to be a veteran in a veterans organization and no one wanted anything to do with me. I thought, “Am I a person who doesn’t belong?”
My wife suggested I try The American Legion post in our new town since I was already a member. The meeting day came and I walked in expecting the same results.
I went in, sat down, and immediately a guy walked up, grabbed my hand, shook it and said, “I’m Frank. Who are you? What branch? What did you do? How long were you in?” Before I could answer, he introduced me to the commander and many others. Then he introduced me to the chaplain, who looked me up and down and asked, “Marine, huh? Do you have your dress blues?”
“Yes, I do, and they even still fit.”
“Good. Come with me,” he said.
We went in the back of the post and he gave me gloves, a hat and coat. “We have a funeral tomorrow, and I need you to wear your blues because you are presenting the flag to the family.”
I was introduced to everyone that night; I met so many veterans and their spouses. When I went home I said to my wife, “I found it.”
“Found what?” she asked.
“The camaraderie that I had missed since I received my DD-214.”
They were not all Marines, but they were brothers and sisters in arms. I found a place to belong and to call home.
I have been a member of that post for several years now. I have buried some of those members who welcomed me that first night and suppose I will bury a few more in the years ahead. By then, I will have helped welcome in a new set of Legionnaires, introduced them to the commander, and offered them something to do like present the flag to the family of one who has left us.
I have developed friendships and bonds I will never forget. We do tell old stories, but we also create new ones. We share things from our biographies that even our families never hear. No matter what war era, Vietnam to Afghanistan, we Legionnaires are family.
I wanted to give up on the Legion, but I didn’t. And I am glad because I finally found my home, where I belong, among my brothers and sisters. The post I first visited has changed now, has adopted a culture of welcome, as my second post did. Both are doing well today, having made veterans like me feel at home among them.
Some Vietnam War veterans tell of a time when they were not welcomed in posts after they came home. Today, those veterans who were persistent enough to find the right Legion fit are leaders of The American Legion at every level. They know that a failed first impression can mean a member lost forever. Not everyone is as persistent as this Marine, and we, as Legionnaires, should not make the journey difficult or the destination unwelcoming.
As a post-9/11 veteran in a position of leadership in my department today, I strongly encourage all of my fellow Legionnaires to embrace the new generation, male or female, because a veteran is a veteran.
We often need each other, our communities definitely need us, and there simply is no good reason to turn a cold shoulder to any eligible veteran who could benefit from membership.