A legacy of stepping up in tough times

Early last December, we were arguably too deep into the 2008 calendar to launch much of a seasonal fundraising drive. Word, however, reached me from the Red Cross that severely wounded troops recovering at various military hospitals could use some comfort items for the holidays: sweatsuits, digital music players, DVDs, and other things not directly related to patients’ medical care, which is expertly provided by DoD. We immediately organized a campaign.

The economic context of the time is well understood. Recession had gripped our nation for at least a year by December. Unemployment had surged upward while stock portfolios and retirement accounts shriveled. Phenomena all too familiar to those who lived through the difficult 1930s – bank failures, foreclosures and financial distress – were back in the headlines, disheartening industrial and political leaders alike, who looked to each other for answers and found few. Legionnaires looked inside themselves and acted as they always do.

I immediately authorized the purchase of 100 new sweatsuits to be delivered from Legion National Headquarters to recovering troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and simultaneously set in motion Operation Comfort Warriors, an ambitious effort to raise $50,000 to help purchase more items for Walter Reed and other facilities, before the holidays. The response was, and continues to be, amazing.

Personal phone calls and e-mails generated contributions big and small.

Massachusetts kicked it off with a $1,000 pledge on the first day and a challenge for other departments to match it. Many did. Others reported that they were already well into their own programs to assist their military and veterans communities for the holidays. I thank them.

Dozens of online donations for Operation Comfort Warriors were made at www.legion.org/ocw and through The American Legion Online Update. One post commander wrote that she had been searching for the right program to inspire her recession-weary members for the holidays, and this was it. She immediately began a local campaign to help.

In the eye of an economic hurricane, Legionnaires rose up and swiftly produced $80,000 in an effort that will continue indefinitely. Meanwhile, the Legion just finished a record year of delivering $672,000 in cash grants to families through the Temporary Financial Assistance program and handling more than 2,500 Family Support Network requests.

If you think Legion membership and compassionate support for veterans can only flourish in the good times, you might be surprised by how the organization performed through the Depression. During those dark times, the Legion worked tirelessly to bring scattered veterans services under one umbrella and created the Veterans Administration. Legionnaires fought for overdue benefits World War I combat veterans had been promised. Posts sprang up across the country. Patriotism thrived. And the Legion established itself as a paragon of local service, hope and stability. Membership soared from 729,219 in 1929 to 1,136,148 in 1942.

Today, as we face similar difficulties, we have an equally important obligation to stand strong in our communities, to build our membership and show America what it means to be a Legionnaire. Operation Comfort Warriors is an excellent example.