All hands on deck

A U.S. flag that flew from the main mast of USS McInerney during the liberation of Kuwait has a place of honor, hanging inside American Legion Post 316 in Atlantic Beach, Fla. It was a gift from life member and three-time post commander Clarence Hill. In January 1991, the McInerney, a guided-missile frigate, left Mayport, Fla., to protect carrier forces conducting strikes from the Red Sea and later the Arabian Gulf as part of Operation Desert Storm. Arriving in mid-February, Hill took command of McInerney pierside in Bahrain a week before the ground war. The frigate escorted the battleship Wisconsin through mined waters to within miles of occupied Kuwait and performed anti-air, anti-surface and mine countermeasures as Wisconsin fired its 16-inch guns. “We destroyed 11 floating mines in seven days at one point,” Hill recalls. “It was pretty nasty stuff. Oil fires were everywhere, and the closer you got to the shore, the blacker it got. We wore face masks. You could hardly see the sun.” McInerney searched sea lanes using an embarked SH-60B LAMPS III helicopter and two Army AHIP (OH-58D) helicopters, escorting more than 50 ships transporting relief supplies to Kuwait City. The frigate earned the Navy Unit Commendation, the National Defense Service Medal, the Southwest Asia Service Medal with Bronze Star, and the Kuwait Liberation Medal. For Hill, the Gulf War tour was a fitting capstone to a 24-year Navy career. Commissioned from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1972, he spent 19 years on sea duty. His afloat service included two destroyers, two cruisers and officer-in-charge of a PT boat; he also served on the staffs of Cruiser-Destroyer Group 12 in Mayport, and Sixth Fleet in Gaeta, Italy. He commanded the Naval Communications Station United Kingdom in Thurso, Scotland, for three years and a frigate for two years. He retired in 1996. “I never consciously decided to make it a career,” he says. “The Navy just kept sending me places we enjoyed.” Hill joined The American Legion in 1983, at the urging of his wife, Liz, who wanted to join the Auxiliary. Only after he left the Navy, though, did Hill really dig in. He started as a counselor at Florida Boys State, then took on the role of district Boys State chairman. Later he volunteered as district and department Oratorical chairman. Hill’s mentor and Florida’s National Executive Committeeman at the time, George Derrick, encouraged him to keep moving up. He did just that, going on to be elected post commander, district commander, area commander, department vice commander, and in 2002-2003, department commander. He also served on the National Legislative Council and the National Membership & Post Activities Committee, and spent three years as chairman of the National Security Commission. “When you don’t say no, they keep piling on,” he jokes. “Truth is, I liked what I was doing. I liked what the Legion was doing. I liked that I could continue to serve after retiring.” At The American Legion’s 91st National Convention in Louisville, Ky., in August, Hill was sworn in as national commander – the first from the Department of Florida. He may be the organization’s most plugged-in commander yet, with followers on Twitter and accounts on popular online networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn. He also has a place of his own on The American Legion’s national Web site: An all-new National Headquarters Web site will launch during the week of Veterans Day 2009. A bigger, better presence in cyberspace is imperative if the Legion is going to thrive in the new century, says Hill, who is known locally, regionally and nationally as a “membership guy.” As Florida’s department commander, he led the state to an all-time high in membership, and his home post just logged its 18th all-time-high membership. He has received eight Gold Brigade Awards by signing up 50 or more new Legionnaires a year over the past nine years. A stronger Internet presence, he says, is critical to growing membership.  “I don’t think we’re doing anything near what we should be doing with technology. Posts need to get into social networking and have their own blogs. I tell departments the same thing. The Legion needs to be looking to the future and doing what will make it attractive to younger veterans.” Buckeye Boy. Hill grew up in Martins Ferry, Ohio, along the river and in the foothills of the Appalachians, with two brothers and three sisters. Another brother came along when he was in his junior year at the Naval Academy. “My mother had kids in four decades – the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” he says. His father was a Navy fireman who joined near the end of World War II and spent the rest of his life working for Ma Bell. The elder Hill never talked much about his time in service: “All he ever told me was, ‘When they said I could leave, I left.’” Sports were Hill’s life as a young man. In school, he was co-captain of the basketball team and lettered two years; he lettered in football and track three years. He is a diehard Pittsburgh Steelers fan, and his boyhood hero was Ohio State Buckeye and Boston Celtics star John Havlicek, who was born in Martins Ferry. “I still follow the Celtics, but not like I used to,” says Hill, who laughs when he remembers the time his wife bought him and his stepson tickets to see the Celtics and the 76ers in a playoff game when Hill was stationed at the shipyard in Philadelphia. “We got back and she asked, ‘How’d Havlicek do?’ I said, ‘Well, he’s doing pretty good, I guess. He retired three years ago.’ She’d bought the tickets so I could see him play.” Hill met Liz in Norfolk, Va., in March 1974, when he was an ensign on board the destroyer Claude V. Ricketts. The crew was hosting a German ship, and a member of the wardroom put together a party at a clubhouse. Liz was there, and Hill was smitten. “I had to keep leaving to drive the Germans, and I asked her if she was going to be there when I got back,” he says. “She said, ‘Yeah,’ but she wasn’t, and I didn’t have her name or number or anything. But two bachelors I lived with did. So I stole her number and called her.” They married Oct. 30, 1976. Liz was divorced and had three young children at the time, and Hill has been like a father to them, she says. They have six grandchildren, and the four youngest – Kadence, McKenzie, Amelia and Fionna – have “Pampa” wrapped around their fingers. “He spends a lot of time with them,” Liz says. “They’re going to miss him probably more than any of us this year.” Hill works as a contract manager for Allegiance Security Group, a security-guard service in Jacksonville. The position gives him the flexibility needed for his commitments to The American Legion, and branch manager Fred Johns says Hill will definitely have the job back when his stint as national commander ends. “He’s extremely intelligent,” Johns says. “He’s also very detail-oriented, and in this business, you have to be. You’ve got to cross those T’s and dot those I’s. He does a tremendous job. There’s no limit for him, really.” Ready to Lead. His Post 316 family is proud to see Hill representing the Legion on the national stage – starting with Liz, who works as the post’s food and beverage manager, to members who were around long before Hill donned a blue cap. Lee Austin, a Korean War Navy veteran and Post 316’s finance officer, met Hill when he joined the Legion. He’s watched him advance through the ranks, setting post, district, area and state membership records along the way. “He’s served in all the right positions, so he really knows the Legion – what it stands for, what it does,” Austin says. “He also has the ability to lead people, and I think he’ll make an outstanding national commander.” Mike Amig, a fellow Navy vet, got involved in Post 316 after leaving active duty in 2004. Before Amig was elected post commander last year, Hill spent a lot of time showing him the ropes, he says. “I was asking questions of how to be a better Legionnaire, of what needed to be done, and Clarence was the one who had all the right answers,” Amig says. “If anybody understands The American Legion and its purpose and its process, it’s him. He’ll lead the Legion into its next chapter. He’ll be a great commander.” As for Hill, he says he’s interested in helping the Legion craft ongoing initiatives that will increase membership, rather than think up a few “one-year wonders” that would end when he leaves office. He advocates long-range planning to grow the Legion. Hill wants to hear suggestions, from the post level on up, on how to reach out and meet the needs of all veterans, particularly those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Hill is convinced that district commanders must step up. “They’re the ones with their fingers on the pulse of each of their posts, and they need to be visible, making sure that posts are doing the programs and providing that community presence that makes us the grassroots organization Congress listens to,” he says. Meanwhile, posts can’t keep doing business the way they’ve always done it – not when younger veterans are communicating and congregating online. Hill says posts might have to buy more computers, go wi-fi and set up Internet cafés. To serve families, they should consider starting day care or after-school programs. To support the troops, they have to be there when soldiers deploy or ships return to port. “There are people out there with ideas who need to contribute,” he says. “I don’t see myself as much of a visionary, but I hope we’ll look back on this year and say we have initiatives in place that are going to last a lot longer than Clarence Hill lasted, and that the Legion has a vision of the future that’s achievable and will make us grow again.”   Matt Grills is associate editor for The American Legion Magazine.