Legion post finds a way to come back from natural disaster

Watching footage of hurricanes Harvey and Irma wreak havoc in recent weeks hit Department of North Carolina Legionnaire Raymond Whitaker hard. But it also strengthened the resolve of the 41-year-old commander of James LeBlanc Post 230 in Spring Lake, N.C. – while inspiring him to share his message of hope with others.

Whitaker has seen first hand the damage a hurricane can cause. Last October a combination of nine-plus inches of rain and then Hurricane Matthew left Post 230 under several feet of water. Dry wall, furniture, wiring and flooring were damaged or destroyed. Thousands of dollars in kitchen equipment was ruined that the post doesn’t have the funding to replace.

Whitaker wasn’t a member of the post at the time. But after connecting with Post 230 while assisting with renovation efforts with both Operation Supply Drop and Team Rubicon, he joined and was later elected commander.

Now, as Post 230 closes in on reopening this fall, he wants others to know that hope and recovery still exist after a natural disaster.

“I cringe every time I see a hurricane come, just because the damage is the hard part,” Whitaker said. “It’s walking into an environment where you just had a home yesterday and now you don’t. All the functions you had planned … it’s now destroyed.

“But the one things that veterans do really well is we continue to move forward. That’s very impactful for me, and I hope that if I could say anything to those in Texas and (Florida) … it’s that.”

The post, founded in 1943, had undergone a rebirth in recent years. Past Post Commander Mark Erskine, now Department of North Carolina Division II commander, had joined the post five years earlier when the post was on the verge of closing. He spent the next four years as post commander and nearly doubled the membership.

Once the roads opened up around the post after Matthew, Erskine and his wife were able to survey the damage. Water from the lake located at the front of the post’s property was all the way up to the building, something Erskine said members who have been at the post from Day 1 had never seen before. Inside, Erskine found water marks 21 inches high.

“I told the wife ‘It’s going to be an uphill battle, but we can’t give up,’” Erskine said. “We’ve got to find some way to do this.”

While Erskine said that he was heavily invested in the post, his desire to rebuild wasn’t mainly driven by that. “I was looking at us, the total membership,” he said. “This is their home, too. Me being the commander, it was my job as a leader not to let my fellow Legionnaires down.”

Through his connections developed as the post commander, Erskine was able to rally some support from the community. Erskine also was able to secure a $10,000 National Emergency Fund grant that was used to purchase some used chairs and bathroom items, as well as support the post’s programs, such as Junior ROTC. “(The NEF grant) kept us going while I was still trying to get other funds raised,” he said. “If it wasn’t for (the grant), we would have been doing nothing.”

But Erskine credited Whitaker for critical fundraising efforts.

“(Whitaker) knew a lot more about fundraising (and) dealing with charities than I did,” Erskine said. “Through his help we got a lot of support.”

The main supporter was Chive Charities, which provides support to, among others, veterans in need of assistance. Whitaker was able to secure what initially was a $20,000 grant that was more than doubled to $41,090. A 24-hour flash fundraiser added $22,000 to Chive’s assistance.

“The Chive is what saved this post,” Whitaker said.

The flood had provided both Operation Supply Drop and Team Rubicon with opportunities to help fellow veterans – something Whitaker said he’d been looking for. But after seeing the post’s dedication to continuing to serve even after Matthew made Whitaker want to stick around.

“It was the membership, and I think Mark is a piece of that,” Whitaker said. “When you come in and see a commander that hasn’t given up … they were still out doing stuff in the community. They were still doing stuff in the schools. They were helping me understand what The American Legion does … by inviting me out to go do an event. I (didn’t) care if this post was operational or not. I want to be a part of it because they’re doing what they should be doing.”

It was important for Whitaker to have a post facility, rather than meeting at the Spring Lake Town Hall. “It’s very hard to run programs out of the town hall,” he said. “You’re not in your own facility. People don’t feel like it’s there home. Nobody could wrap their arms around it.

“Now people are starting to get excited again. They’re seeing the post is coming back.”

The flooding and subsequent leadership from Whitaker also helped bring some younger members into the post. One of those, 23-year-old Lucas Meiners, now serves as second vice commander – one of two active-duty servicemembers in leadership positions at the post.

A sergeant in the Marine Corps stationed at Fort Bragg, Meiners said that like Whitaker, he came to the post hoping to find volunteer opportunities but instead found a bigger calling.

“I spoke with Ray, and they invited me to a meeting and said ‘you don’t have to sign up now. Just come see what we’re about (and) what we do,’” Meiners said. “That’s what drew me in. After the post was destroyed they were discussing how they were going to go out and help other veterans and help other veterans’ home and continue to support the community, versus just getting (the post) up and running immediately. They wanted to make sure everybody else was all right.”

Meiners and other members have put in their own time helping renovate the post. One of those is Richard McMinn, a member of the post’s Legion Riders chapter. McMinn said failure was never an option for the post.

“We took one hell of a hit,” he said. “But we knew we were going to recover.”

Going forward, Whitaker said the post will find less-expensive kitchen equipment to use so it can start hosting weekly breakfasts. A Sons of The American Legion squadron is going to be started in the next month. The post’s programs will continue to grow.

“It’s been a long road,” Whitaker said. “I think the first time we have somebody come use the post it’s going to be overwhelming. You put in all the time and all the sweat that we’ve absolutely spent on this post trying to get it together … so I think having people come in and actually use the post is going to be overwhelming.”

Erskine knows the post still has a ways to go to get back to where it was. It’s “semi-mission accomplished. We are going to be functioning again and able to hold events down here. But for probably a year, until we raise more money, get new furniture and all that good stuff, the mission still won’t be totally complete for me.

“But either way, I don’t believe in giving up. Yes, it can be stressful. But you’ve just got to hang in there.”