'We're a different post'

Their most recent meeting took place in a university library. Present were four members and a two-time past department commander. Not present but still “at” the meeting were veterans from as far away as Florida.

It was by no means a typical American Legion post meeting. But the members of Norwich University Post 1819 aren’t trying to be a typical American Legion post.

Chartered in September of 2014, Post 1819 was established to serve as a support network for the student veterans attending the private Vermont university, as well as give Norwich University graduates scattered throughout the world a post they can call their own.

“We’re a different post, and I think we need to recognize that,” said Post 1819 Commander Kevin Hawley, who graduated from Norwich in 1988 before embarking on a career in the U.S. Marines that saw him retire as a lieutenant colonel. “I’m not afraid to do things differently.

“I think the alum we have coming along with us … are not yet involved in the Legion or are not active. We’re going to have a bit of a different population. And the students are going to be different as well. I want to figure out … the things that our members really want to do and ensure that we capitalize on that.”

Founded in 1819 as the nation’s first private military college, Norwich University now mixes a Corps of Cadets military program with civilian students. The university is home to Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

Of the more than 2,200 student population at Norwich, 1,439 are in the Corps of Cadets program. There are approximately 250 student veterans enrolled. That last group was the target audience when Post 1819 was first chartered and remains a priority. But the new post found it needed to change its mission a bit.

“The student veterans here really aren’t looking for help at this point,” said Post 1819 Adjutant Timothy Schaal, a 1989 Norwich graduate. “I do like to think that we are here if they do decide they need something from us.”

That led to a shift that now focuses on community service – an aspect Schaal said has a great chance of bringing in younger members. The post recently collaborated with the Norwich Student Veterans Council to purchase boots and socks for The Veteran’s Place, a transitional housing facility for homeless veterans in Central Vermont.

Post 1819 has awarded scholarships for high school students to attend Norwich’s Future Leader Camp, which gives those wanting to enter the military a realistic taste of boot camp. And it’s in the process of setting up a scholarship for Norwich students; the application process will take place next spring, and the first scholarship will be awarded next year.

“I think that’s the way The American Legion is going to connect with this younger generation: through service to others,” Schaal said.

Steve Looke – assistant director of Norwich’s Center for Student Success, where the school’s Veterans Affairs office is housed – said Post 1819’s work with the student veterans on campus has been beneficial. “It’s just happened this year where it’s really seemed to find a really nice niche,” he said. “It provides that collaboration between a group of student vets … (that) care about veterans. I think it fits well with what American Legion posts do.”

The American Legion has a history with Norwich University. The Moses Taylor Post 41 was chartered at the school in 1919. Bringing the Legion back to the campus was the brainchild of Richard Gray, the Department of Vermont’s commander from 2013-2015.

A retired Army sergeant major and former ROTC instructor at Norwich, Gray said he had heard from the school’s alums about starting up another post at the school. “That inspired me to do it,” Gray said. “I’m at the point where when someone says ‘we ought to do it,’ then do it.”

Hawley crossed paths with Gray at the department’s convention; the conversation eventually turned to bringing the Legion back to Norwich. Gray and Hawley teamed up with Tom Di Tomasso, a Norwich alum and U.S. Army veteran who earned the Silver Star for his actions in the battle of Mogadishu.

“It was all centered around the idea of pulling younger folks in and ensuring that we were here to help the student veterans at the school,” Hawley said.

In 14 months, the post has grown to 50 members. As far as the contiguous United States, Post 1819 has members in as far away as California. But other members are on active duty and deployed overseas. “They don’t have an opportunity to participate, but they send in their membership dues and want to be a part of it,” Schaal said.

A handful of students also have joined the post. One of those is 20-year-old Dylan Lawson, a reservist in the Marines. “I figured it’s local, it’s close, (so let’s) see what I can do to help out,” Lawson said. “I like it. It’s interesting. It gives you a lot of connections with people who’ve been in and out of the military and who have great advice.”

As a former student, Hawley has gotten a kick out of heading back to school. And those alumni who have joined the post feel the same. “It is absolutely cool … and folks think that it’s right,” he said. “Norwich had a Legion post in 1919. We don’t know exactly how long it lived for, but it’s back again.

"Everybody is, I think, excited about it. (The alums) all like the idea. Not everybody wants to be involved. That comes in two reasons: one, they can’t, and two, they have a relationship already with their local post. They are not going to leave their post, but they love the fact Norwich has a post. They like the idea they’ve got The American Legion back on campus.”

Going forward, Hawley would like to see a Boys State program – of which he also is an alum – started at the post. Gray said he’d like to see an American Legion Riders chapter come to Post 1819.

But Gray also looks at what the post has done in its infancy with a great deal of pride. “They’re running with things and doing great things,” he said.

But the post is just getting started.

“I think we’ve got a lot of room to grow,” Schaal said. “ I think we’re just at the tip of the iceberg. I think when you think back to the history of this institution and the number of veterans that are out there that are associated with it – we’re still in the building process.

“We spent the first year trying to build the program (and) figure out how we were going to make this work. It’s an evolving process still. I think we’re going to see a lot more growth as time goes on.”