Rededicated to Reagan, the veteran and Legionnaire
A portrait of the Post 283 namesake is presented by John Lehne (left) of the Ronald Reagan Foundation and Institute and Post 283 Commander Jim Cragg to hang among the curated artifacts that now adorn the building. Photo by Michael Hjelmstad

Rededicated to Reagan, the veteran and Legionnaire

Traveling to the western edge of Los Angeles into the community of Pacific Palisades, the road is blocked by what appears to be a street fair. The smell of cotton candy and popcorn wafts through a display of vintage military trucks in front of The American Legion post, in celebration of its re-christening as Ronald Reagan-Palisades Post 283. 

Guests wait outside until the newly renovated facility’s unveiling ceremony has concluded, anticipation in what passes for winter weather in Southern California – a brisk nip in the air on a beautifully sunny day. 

The “Spirit of Troy,” the University of Southern California’s marching band, opens the ceremony with a performance of patriotic music and school songs. The color guard from crosstown rival UCLA is also in attendance. USC fans gleefully kept time. 

Post 283 Commander Jim Cragg introduces the emcee for the event, film and television actor Joe Mantegna.  An avid supporter of the military and veterans, the “Criminal Minds” star is an ambassador to the Gary Sinise Foundation and has been leading the national Memorial Day concert in Washington, D.C., for 22 years.

Mantegna described this beautiful day as reminiscent of a time he was filming in a picturesque little town in France. There, he noticed an American flag flying near grave sites.  A closer look revealed a place where Americans had given their lives during World War II. “And that just impacted me in such a way, and made me appreciate that beautiful day, just like this beautiful day,” he said. 

Post 283’s renovation was completed simultaneously with its renaming after former President Ronald Reagan, an effort led by 30-year member Eric Measles, chairman of the Legion’s National Veterans Education, Other Benefits & Homelessness Committee. 

After assessing interest among the membership and receiving overwhelming support, Measles worked on getting approval for the renaming from the Reagan family and the Reagan Foundation.  “I asked everyone to take their politics and put them under the seat,” Measles said. “Because I’m not here to discuss right and left, Democrats or Republicans. It’s not that.  We have an opportunity here to name our post after a member who served in the Army honorably, was a veteran, was a member of The American Legion, and lived in the Palisades. This is an opportunity that I don’t want to see pass by.”

When asked about naming the post after an iconic president who can be polarizing in today’s pollical climate, Cragg said, “I attacked it the same way I attack politics on my military unit, right up the middle. Ronald Reagan is Comrade Reagan in my speech. Ronald Reagan is an inspiration as one of our fellow vets who was able to climb that ladder. Whatever his politics were, he was able to use his military experience and able to probably hone his political craft in The American Legion. For those who adore him, for those who dislike him, this has to be a welcoming place. 

“I think that in the Legion, we are still looked to by the community, and by maintaining that political independence, we can do our own little part to tone down the political angst that’s dividing the nation. It’s nice that the Legion has a policy for that. This is The American Legion; it’s not the place for that. It’s got to be an uplifting place.”  

After congratulatory speeches from local dignitaries, Post 283 unveils its new sign, cuts a ceremonial ribbon and grants the public its first look at the building’s new interior. The 10,000-square-foot storefront in the Palisades business district has been home to Post 283 for many decades, and the new look has garnered fresh attention. 

“We want to raise our profile in the community,” Cragg says. “In attracting new members, we needed to reach out into the community. Our first step was to improve the building. The building now has a much more austere appearance in memorializing the veteran. It’s a comfortable place, but there is also a sense of respect for them and for what they did.”

An enormous portrait of the post’s new namesake is presented by John Lehne of the Ronald Reagan Foundation and Institute. It hangs among curated historical artifacts that now adorn the building. “It is no secret that President Reagan and his administration heavily supported our country’s military, and spurred the revitalization of the Armed Forces during a very pivotal time in history,” Lehne explains.  “A veteran himself, having served in the Army in World War II, President Reagan honored veterans of all campaigns.” 

As Reagan did, Post 283 strives to be inclusive of all veterans and their families. There is a theme here of unity, with displays on the walls representing World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Persian Gulf time period, and the Global War on Terror, Cragg explains. “Whatever war you were in, whatever type of unit, we try to be as diverse as possible and all-welcoming.”

Cragg emphasized the theme of unity: “Now we reach out into the community,” he explains. “We put on free CPR classes. We’re putting on drone classes for familiarization and licensing. Those are things that we think engage the kids and families. The vets will feel like there is something for their entire family here, and that will make them want to be part of the Legion Family.”

Improving the look of the building has already had a positive impact on membership, which has recently grown by no less than 25 new members.

“Not every post can do a full renovation like this, but a new coat of paint says something, maybe putting some thought into their post layout and display of awards,” Cragg says.  “Then inviting the community to let them see it.  Make it so that if you join that post you are raising your capital in the community as a whole.”

Cragg has identified two areas that he feels the post needs to be involved in; one is mentorship and networking, and the other is family. “Our vets have already come home and gotten off the plane.  They don’t need that first job, but they need a better job. They need someone who can network and help get whatever leg up they can in whatever industry they are in. The other aspect is to put on more things like picnics and classes to bring in the families. If a veteran feels like they don’t get enough time with their family because they are working, this is the opportunity to both have family time and bond with fellow Legionnaires.  A big thing to me is the ideals of the military veteran, and I think the Legion espouses those ideals. If we put on an event and we have an Army jeep there for a kid to play on, that sparks a conversation between me and the kids.”

Naming the post after a historic leader might inspire the growth of leaders from within, Cragg says.  “I always want to help those in need. But one of those things I’ve said a lot is it's like a hospital: we focus on the patients, but we haven’t worked on bringing in the doctors. We need mentors.  We have a lot of people who need mentoring.”

Reagan was an active member and supporter of The American Legion.  While president in 1982, he received the American Legion’s Distinguished Service Medal, and in 1988, he spoke at the American Legion’s national convention.

Anyone who enters Post 283 will now be able to look up and see the image of a veteran and Legionnaire who rose to become leader of the free world, an image members of Post 283 hope will be an inspiration for others who served, today and for generations to come.