For Those Who've Lost Their Heroes

A college senior from Michigan will soon spend another winter break without his father, a staff sergeant whose life was taken in a mortar attack in Baqubah, Iraq, on Christmas Day 2003.

Two teen brothers in California will take a moment this holiday season to remember their Marine-pilot stepfather who was killed in an air crash in Pakistan; the oldest boy was only 12 when he tearfully described their late parent as "a hero, especially to me" at the funeral five years ago.

Two students at the University of Illinois, a brother and sister, are about to complete their college degrees and launch their careers, knowing that their father, killed in a helicopter crash during a humanitarian-aid mission in Afghanistan, would be proud of them.

These five young people are at the front of what is becoming a very long line: the children of U.S. servicemembers who lost their lives while on active military duty since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Across the nation, nearly 4,000 kids today cope with that strange mix of grief, honor and sacrifice. The majority of them are not yet of college age, but within the next few years, that will change.

The American Legion created a special scholarship program just days after 9/11 to help young people pay for college and to respect the memories of parents who made the ultimate sacrifice. Since then, The American Legion Legacy Scholarship Fund has captured the hearts of veterans, corporations, communities, motorcyclists and at least one country music star. One fund-raiser at a time - from the $118,000 Mercury Vehicles donated in 2005 alone (with ongoing dona-tions, based on Legionnaire vehicle purchases) to the handful of dollars little Megan Smith of Indiana scraped together to kick off the 2006 Legacy Run - the fund continues to grow. Last summer, while country musician Michael Peterson was selling DVDs and donating half the profits to the fund, motorcyclists from across the nation were rumbling into Reno, Nev., with more than $400,000 from the Second Annual Legacy Run, blowing away their goal of $250,000.

The American Legion Legacy Scholarship Fund has climbed to nearly $1.8 million en route to its first big milestone of $5 million and ultimate goal of $20 million. That sounds like a lot, but it will take a lot to significantly help thousands of young people cover the rising cost of higher education in years to come. This year, $36,000 will be distributed in equal shares among qualified applicants, chosen by The American Legion National Education Committee. Those with the greatest financial need are given highest priority, but so far, every applicant who has met the fundamental criteria has been awarded at least some of the scholarship money each year of the fund's existence. Eighty percent of earnings is spent to provide the scholarships, 20 percent is left in to build up the fund, and 0 percent is spent on administrative costs.

We will talk a lot in the coming months about the value of membership. In this season of giving, if you believe, as I do, that there's value in helping the children of U.S. military personnel who gave their lives while serving our country, please consider one of the many ways to contribute, listed at right. It is, as the song says, who we are.