Hurricane Irma took its best shot at American Legion Post 81 in Melbourne, Fla., damaging the roof, knocking out power and closing the building for nine days.
“For an old building, it's really done pretty good about holding up to all the storms in previous years,” Post 81 Commander Tracy “Stretch” Spence said. “But Irma came through with some pretty strong winds. It didn't take our roof but caused us multiple leaks and damage so we had to fix the entire roof to repair the damage. We couldn't piecemeal it together.”
Post 81 members rallied to reopen the post, taking turns guarding the post and cleaning it up, as well as lending assistance to others in need. A grant from the Legion’s National Emergency Fund (NEF) also contributed to the post’s return after Irma struck in early September.
“We do a lot of fundraising around here,” Spence said. “I'm really proud of our post. We are involved in a lot of various fundraising and our post has done really well. But when it came time to replace the whole roof, we're talking $26,000 that we just didn't really have. The National Emergency Fund was available to us, up to $10,000, and we applied for it and they granted us $8,000, which really helped us because it saved us that money that we're able to roll back into the programs now.”
NEF provides immediate grants to American Legion members and posts that have been affected by natural disasters such as hurricanes. After Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria devastated communities in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, NEF distributed thousands of dollars to posts and individuals. Donate to NEF here.
Post 81 is among Legion posts that have recovered and are back to serving their communities. However, nearly six months after the hurricanes, others like Post 135 in Naples are still working through various challenges to reopen.
John Gamerl is first vice commander of Post 81. He described the post building as “being in shambles” soon after Irma hit. But he never doubted it would reopen quickly.
“Our commander is a driven man and when he wants something done, he's gonna get it done,” Gamerl said. “He made a vow to not only the post, but to the community in general that we will be up and running. In short order he had us back up, back in business. I'm very proud of that.”
Bruce Thurber, commander for the 12th District in Florida, noted Post 81 was helping other hurricane victims before Irma.
“Two weeks prior to being hit by Irma, Post 81 was helping me collect goods that we sent to Texas in relief for Hurricane Harvey,” Thurber explained. “The day after the truck left, Irma hit us. This post helped raise about $20,000 worth of relief supplies that went over to Texas. Then all of a sudden, they're stranded here with their roof off and unable to continue operating and doing what they do. They are one of the most important parts of this community. When asked by anybody, they always step up.”
The post supports Boys State, Girls State and Boy Scout programs. It also feeds thousands of veterans and others who visit the Melbourne area each year when a traveling Vietnam Wall exhibit is on display. “This is not a rich community,” Thurber said. “If it wasn't for The American Legion, this community would not have the things that they have.”
Post 81 sits in an industrial part of Melbourne. Nearby businesses and residents know that the post is the go-to place when American flags need to be retired. Twice annually, the post holds proper flag retirement ceremonies. In June, Post 81 members retired thousands of flags over the course of two days.
In mid-February, more than 500 flags were properly disposed of during a retirement ceremony at the post. Spence led the ceremony, emceeing the procedures so the audience of 50 or so people understood what was happening.
“It gets them involved,” he said, referring to Legion Family members and citizens in attendance. “As I've started doing these different things — like Pearl Harbor, the flag retirement ceremonies, my POW ceremony — people always come to us afterward and say, ‘I wish you would tell us more.’ Or, ‘Tell us more about what you're doing.’ That's exciting.”
After the flag retirement ceremony, Legion Family and community members were invited to participate and properly dispose of flags in the fire pit. It’s an example of the post’s community service efforts.
“It's all about Americanism,” Spence said. “You do these ceremonies because the more you can do the ceremonies, the more you can get the younger generation involved. They learn to appreciate why we do it. One of the things The American Legion teaches, which I'm trying to instill in our post is, if you are casual about your attitude to America, or to the Legion or anything else, then you're going to have a casual belief. If you're more professional and more honorable and make it important, then your community, your children, your community around you will learn it's important. They'll take more pride in it, therefore hopefully you can pass that message on to the next generation.”