The Legion on Campus

Kim Mezger saw the value in creating a group in which veterans at her commuter college in Indiana could bond.

Calie Craddock, attending a large university, was determined to engage in community volunteer efforts with others who had served in uniform.

Monte Warren, a faculty member and student at yet another university, wanted to extend his commitment to service by giving back to a younger generation of veterans.

These veterans realized their visions at three of The American Legion’s newest posts. Each of these posts – established at a college or university –
offers its members something akin to the camaraderie they knew and experienced in the military.

Open to veterans among their school’s alumni, faculty and students, these on-campus posts are a welcome support system for members, many of whom are fresh out of the service and looking for guidance with VA claims, education benefits, schoolwork or the general stresses of being one of only a few veterans in a sea of students with no military experience. Additionally, the posts give veterans on campus a unified voice – backed by The American Legion’s name – that can speak to veterans issues on campus.

Legion campus posts include University Veterans Post 360 at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), NDSU Post 400 at North Dakota State University in Fargo, and Post 397 at Hodges University in Naples, Fla. All three are bringing together student veterans eager to help others on campus who served.

University Veterans Post 360 Founded in November 2011, Post 360 is the first American Legion post created on a college campus.

Representatives from the Department of Indiana gave a presentation to student veterans attending IUPUI, but instead of trying to recruit them into the state’s headquarters post, they pitched the idea of the group forming its own post.

Kim Mezger, an Air Force veteran, was intrigued. She thought a Legion post would be a good fit for IUPUI, given the school’s large number of student veterans and commuter culture. Most students drive to the downtown Indianapolis campus for class, then return home when their day is over, spending little time outside of lecture halls.

This kind of arrangement is great for older students and young student veterans who are marrying and starting families. It isn’t, however, ideal for building peer groups or making connections with those of similar backgrounds.

“With many of these groups, especially at a school like this, you may never see each other on campus or after you graduate,” says Mezger, who serves as Post 360’s vice commander.

Already a member of veterans clubs and a veterans honors society at IUPUI, she gathered 15 other student vets who would eventually become the post’s charter members. Mezger also recruited her husband, Kevin, an Air Force and Army veteran who has no ties to IUPUI but was willing to take on the role of post commander as a way to assist student veterans.

Kevin remembers the ’90s, when he had just separated from the service and felt out of place in a lecture hall packed with teens who were years younger than him.

“I remember sitting in a classroom where there were 200 students, and I was hearing someone talk about their recreational drug use,” Kevin says. “I too have gone through coming out of the military and going right into school, working a full-time job and trying to raise a family. Kim and I understand the struggles and want to help (student veterans) as much as possible.”

With more than 50 members now, Post 360 offers plenty of opportunities for that. Juan Trejo, a recent IUPUI graduate who served in the National Guard, didn’t know how to enroll in VA until the commander took him there.

“Kevin helped me get into the VA system,” Trejo says. “I just kept putting it off and he kept telling me I had to do it. Finally he came over – took a whole half day off – and explained it. We went over to the VA and got me hooked up.”

Post 360’s older members help mentor the younger veterans, who are dealing with adult responsibilities while a lot of their classmates are thinking about their weekend plans.“Having a post like this provides a place for those veterans to talk to people who’ve been through what they’ve been through,” says Jose Sandoval, who served in the Army National Guard. “There’s an instant brotherhood even without knowing them. Even if they haven’t been in the war and they’ve just been in the military, we have that common bond.”

Clinton Holsinger, another of the post’s charter members and a recent IUPUI graduate, says he was relieved to find a group where he could meet other veterans. “In undergrad, I was a full-time student,” he says. “I wasn’t working full time. I feel more involved now than I did back then.”

Cultivating this kinship is essential to helping student veterans succeed academically and in life, Kevin says.

“(Veterans) don’t learn the same way, or they have trouble because of their experiences,” he says. “Vets are willing to help each other out. They’ll meet for a cup of coffee and work their way through it.”

NDSU Post 400 Even on a traditional university campus with dormitories and homecoming parades, an American Legion post has a niche to fill – as members of NDSU Post 400 have discovered.

North Dakota State University has about 15,000 students with an average age of 21. There, a group of young Legionnaires is working hard to reach out to the school’s 700 or so veterans.

Though the university has a handful of veterans clubs, what’s been missing until recently was one focusing on service to others, says Calie Craddock, the 23-year-old commander of Post 400 and a Army National Guard veteran. While deployed to Kuwait, she and a friend talked about the possibility of starting an American Legion post on campus.

Once Craddock returned to the United States, she did just that, founding NDSU Post 400 last year. The Legion’s name and reputation fit best her vision of offering student veterans opportunities for volunteerism.

“We already have quite a few veterans outreach organizations on campus, and the post seemed to be a natural transition into more of a community-based activism program,” Craddock says. “We have had veterans organizations on campus that haven’t had the clout necessary. What’s awesome about the Legion is ... it’s a tried-and-true organization that can support us while we pursue endeavors.”

Post 400 and its 40 members have participated in charity races and other events on campus, along with organizing focus groups to help identify issues facing NDSU veterans. They also joined a local nonprofit in hosting a fundraiser for a local Guardsman who has a brain tumor, at nearby Legion Post 2 in downtown Fargo.

Post 2 has a membership of mostly Vietnam War and World War II veterans. These Legionnaires have acted as mentors to the members of NDSU Post 400, advising them on how to grow their post and fulfill their mission of supporting their campus and community. Post 400 repaid the good will by lending its younger, able-bodied members to repair Post 2’s roof over the summer.

Through activities like these, Post 400’s members say they’re enjoying, again, that brotherhood they knew in the military.

“We do want to be that beacon of light and give that camaraderie that the service provides,” Craddock says.

That’s what appealed to Megan Tiegs, a Guardsman and NDSU junior, and persuaded her to become a member of the Legion.

“All of my grandparents are very active in The American Legion, actually, in posts around my hometown,” she says. “I thought it would be something cool to join – kind of like a family thing. It really interested me as a college student, to know that there are other people on campus who are going through some of the same things as me, and who could identify with having come from being on duty.”

Before Army reservist Nathan Paler joined the post last fall, he recognized a few other student veterans in passing, but says he never got to know any of them.

“I’m a little less on edge than I was,” Paler says. “Just walking across campus, you can tell who is in the military. Now that I know a lot more faces, I feel a lot more comfortable.”

Ultimately, Craddock would like to see Post 400 extend the bond of NDSU student veterans beyond graduation, keeping them in touch as alumni and as employment connections. They can support each other as they navigate the professional world, she says.

“We can have longevity in the post but also breed really strong individuals who look out for each other,” she says.

Florida Post 397 At Hodges University, a commuter college split between campuses in Naples and Fort Myers, Fla., it’s typical for students to attend class and never get to know each other.

Last summer, a group of student veterans led by alumnus John Ebling started Post 397 to change that. With about 300 veterans attending Hodges – about 10 percent of the student population – Post 397 intends to serve as a rallying point for veterans on both campuses who are looking for a place to meet and get to know other students who have served in the military.

“We can give (veterans at the school) somewhere to go for camaraderie,” says Kenneth Worthy, a charter member of Post 397. “We can give them veterans, who they are used to being around. A lot of them have been in the military since they were 17 or 18 years old, gone on to combat and then come out. It takes them a while to adjust, so it’s best for them to be around people who they know.”

Like Mezger at IUPUI, Ebling heard a presentation given by membership representatives – in this case, the Legion’s Department of Florida – to a university veterans club, explaining how a Legion post might be a good fit for a campus like Hodges. Inspired, Ebling went on to found the post and become its adjutant.

“Creating a post on campus is an innovative way of recruiting Legion members,” Ebling says. “A lot of the new veterans aren’t joining Legion posts like they have in the past because they have families and they are looking to further their careers. They aren’t going to join an organization just for the social benefits.”

So far, the post has attracted about 30 members, many of whom weren’t Legionnaires before joining and signed up because they wanted to be part of a veterans-oriented activity on campus.

Monte Warren, a faculty member and student at Hodges, signed up so that he could share his experiences from 24 years of Army National Guard service with the next generation.
“I really want to identify with and convey to future students and future veterans what I went through,” Warren says. “My story isn’t as extreme as some others, but ... I want to be able to assist them and help them with the (transition).”

Helping Hodges’ student veterans is the post’s top priority, whether that means providing peer support or homework assistance.

“It’s difficult to duplicate the camaraderie you had in the service, but a lot of the aspects are there with the post,” says Robert Dillon, an Army veteran. “A lot of us meet in the cafeteria and talk, we help each other with homework issues, we ask each other how things are going at home.”

Andy Romey is an assistant editor for The American Legion.