Over its nearly 100-year history, The American Legion has fostered a number of programs that have slipped in and out of prominence but remain steadfast in their service to others. One such initiative that’s growing within the Legion is its connection to amateur radio.
The connection is a natural one. Communications training is a standard part of military service, and amateur radio offers a way to continue serving after the military, says Marty Justis, president of The American Legion Amateur Radio Club (TALARC). "Ham" networks of all kinds provide support for everything from Legion post activities to the Indianapolis Veterans Day Parade and the Boston Marathon.
Perhaps the most powerful way amateur radio can provide service is in civil defense and disaster preparedness, both of which are high priorities for the Legion. Because September is National Disaster Preparedness Month, the Legion wants departments and posts to know the importance of being ready for anything, whether that’s volunteering a post home as a community shelter during a disaster or partnering with local public safety officials. The American Legion has a longstanding memorandum of understanding with the Department of Homeland Security, which encourages local organizations to get involved in emergency communications.
Based out of American Legion National Headquarters in Indianapolis, TALARC is as a conduit to encourage more localized ham radio programs. Justis and Joe March, two longtime hams and Legion employees, came up with the idea in 2010. The following year, the Legion’s National Executive Committee approved its creation. Currently TALARC has at least 3,200 members, some in every department, and at least 30 post clubs. Bill Sloan, vice president, says TALARC is certainly one of the country’s largest ham radio clubs.
An early wish for TALARC was to set up a station at National Headquarters from which to operate communication events, or "nets." During nets, anyone on the same frequency can "check in" and make contact with net operators. An old darkroom in the building’s basement was requisitioned, a request went out to Legion hams for equipment, and the response was quick, Justis says. Today TALARC boasts antennae on the roof, amplifiers and other advanced resources. The club station is used mainly for special event stations, or nets to commemorate specific places or days, such as the Legion's birthday in March and Veterans Day in November.
The difference between a club and a station is that while a club consists of enthusiasts -- some of whom may have their own ham equipment -- a station is a more permanent operation, with its own Federal Communications Commission (FCC) call sign like those obtained by individuals. That’s what TALARC wants clubs to aim for.
The roots of amateur radio go back more than a century. Morse code is considered the first digital communication, and laid the groundwork for everything from radio to cellphones and beyond. During World War I, the War Department commissioned amateur radio operators as officers to teach it to doughboys.
As early as the 1930s, the Legion’s National Security Commission encouraged posts to form amateur radio groups in support of civil defense. A May 1939 article in the National Legionnaire reported that the Department of California had set up a Disaster and Relief Committee, with 228 stations within the state’s borders; each post was to sponsor and provide operating resources for at least one amateur station in its vicinity.
The department's commitment to amateur radio continues to this day. California was the first department to have an FCC call sign of its own. The Department of California American Legion Amateur Radio Commission is nearly 40 years old, and TALARC based much of its organization on it. Dan Curry, an Air Force veteran and chairman of the Department of California American Legion Amateur Radio Commission, travels to ham conventions across the state to "let people know who we are." He says that the recruiting goes both ways – Legionnaires to hams, and veteran hams to Legionnaires – and led to nearly 100 Legionnaires becoming hams last year.
"We would love to see other departments have it," Curry says of the commission. Other goals include encouraging students on amateur radio's STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) connections, having at least one post club in every district, and continuing to work on community disaster and emergency preparedness .
Chris Cancilla is trustee of the new post club at Walter E. Cole Post 187 in Wake Forest, N.C. He was turned on to amateur radio by his operator roommate while stationed in Texas during his time in the Air Force, and is currently climbing the licensing ladder.
The club brings together three of Cancilla's hobbies: ham radio, the Legion and the Boy Scouts (which have a long association with amateur radio, too): the result is "backflips-down-the-hallway kind of fun for me." His focus is on the training and education of anyone who wants to learn amateur radio. Membership stands at 10 certified operators, and the club is open to Scouts and the community.
Post 187 assists at many community events, such as Music in the Park, and Cancilla sees ham involvement as an asset to these activities: "Communication is an important factor in pretty much everything." The post club plans to organize a station down the road. Cancilla's favorite moment of his amateur radio career was Jamboree on the Internet, a Scouting event that utilized the EchoLink system to connect repeaters around the world using computers. Local Scouts were talking to their counterparts in Australia, and Cancilla overheard an observation shared by both sides: "Man, you sound funny." "It's a smaller world," he says.
In August 2015, Don Rand started an amateur radio club at Post 1992 in Gautier, Miss., with four other hams, a primary reason the Air Force veteran had joined the Legion just a couple of months before. The club’s purposes are running nets and emergency preparedness. Rand runs a weekly evening 80 meter net that has attracted an audience far beyond their hopes: "We soon found out that hams throughout the country wanted an evening net," he says. "We have had check-ins from Michigan, New York, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Indiana, Texas and, of course, Mississippi." They are planning a special event station for Veterans Day and more visibility in their department, including demonstrations at department meetings.
In September 2015, the club received the donation of a communications trailer by the county ham association, and the club is working on outfitting it for both every day and emergency use. "Living on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, we have constant reminders of the need for communications," Rand says. "I would like to make sure all Legion posts along the I-10 highway system know about us and our capabilities." Those include members with their own equipment and a commitment to meet the needs of the Legion and the community alike. When Hurricane Harvey pummeled Texas and the Gulf Coast in late August, Rand and his cohorts were busy making connections and relaying information.
Boyle Post 46 in Danville, Ky., took a different path to obtaining a post club: it adopted one that already existed in its community. The Wilderness Road Amateur Radio Club was founded in 1960 for county ham communities, but had lost its home in the local Red Cross building. The post offered it a place in its own building and affirmed it as a "post-approved activity." According to post commander Tony Cromwell, the post “greatly benefited by the radio club becoming part of our post, and our community image was greatly enhanced."
Cromwell himself became licensed in 1973 after leaving the Air Force. He says the post/club's long-term goal is to get a fully operational emergency communications van integrated into the communication network, and to continue to grow club membership. Cromwell calls the coupling "the post entrée into providing Legion mission support to emergency support for our communities in times of natural disasters."
Any licensed Legion Family member can join TALARC, and it only takes one person to start a club after receiving approval from post leadership. After that, it's a matter of recruiting other Legionnaire hams into the club – or creating new hams through training and education. For those interested in becoming a ham, the Legion has resources available online to help obtain an FCC amateur radio license, at www.legion.org/hamradio/resources.
Cromwell put it best in an article he wrote for a Department of Kentucky publication: "Like a diamond, The American Legion has many facets .... One of these is a mission to provide emergency communications support in communities during natural disasters."