Standing just 4-foot-9 and a half, Judy Johnston knew she was too short to join the Army during the Vietnam War. So she wore her hair up, getting the necessary half of an inch to enlist.
She ended up becoming part of the first group of enlisted women to be deployed to a combat area of Vietnam and went to bed at night watching mortar fire go in and come out during the Tet Offensive.
After leaving the Army, she joined the Army National Guard, turning it into a career. She’s also made a bit of a career in The American Legion, joining F&J Ravin Post 134 in Portland, Ore., in 1975, and becoming post adjutant three months later. Johnston served in one post office or another every year since she joined, including being elected the first female post commander. She’s also served as district commander nine times.
“I believe in what The American Legion is,” Johnston said. “Looking out for your fellow veterans – that’s one of the main things they do. Look out for your veterans, the veterans’ families and the community. That’s what the purpose of the Legion is. The Legion is not a bar.”
That’s why Johnston is so happy that Sean Davis has been elected post commander. Davis, 41, first served in the Army from 1993-1999 and then enlisted in the Oregon National Guard the day after 9/11. He was deployed in Iraq and awarded a Purple Heart after being injured during an ambush that took the life of his best friend.
Elected a few months ago, Davis has brought fresh insight and ideas to the 70-year-old post.
“Somebody has to follow us and take over and keep our programs going,” Johnston said. “We’re getting older. Everybody gets older.
“Sean has wonderful community ideas, and we need it. He has fresh, young ideas, which I’m glad to see. I’m glad to see the younger veterans finally coming in. They’re coming to the meetings … so they can say ‘Hey, why don’t we do this project, why don’t we do that project?’ We need that. We need to keep the younger people coming and getting involved.”
Davis joined the Legion in 2010 for what he feels is a pretty common reason. “I think we all join to help our community,” he said. “Some may call it patriotism, but I joined the military … because I wanted to help out my community. I wanted to help out other people. I think a lot of veterans join that way. And when you come back, that desire’s still there. People still want to help their community, and I knew that I could do it through here."
To say Davis has an artistic side is an understatement. He teaches literature at both Mt. Hood Community College and Clackamas Community College. His book about his military experience, “The Wax Bullet War: Chronicles of a Soldier & Artist,” received stellar reviews. He serves as the veterans service coordinator for the opera "The Canticle of The Black Madonna" and has contributed to publications such as the Portland Mercury, Work Magazine and The Good Men Project.
He also paints and has written several plays; his most recent, “Chaos of the Stars,” was performed in front of a standing-room only crowd of more than 100 people in Mt. Hood’s Studio Theater.
Davis has incorporated his artistic side into his role as post commander – a position he nominated himself for. The post hosts literary events, and the post itself has served as a rehearsal site for Davis’ plays.
A TV fund has been set aside to buy a large-screen television so the post can show sporting events and movies. Davis has friends who train and then hire veterans as security guards. The post also recently had a litter of puppies donated to it and plans to work with another veteran to train them as service dogs. The post stays busy with traditional projects, such as hosting Halloween parties for children, providing Thanksgiving meals and Christmas gifts for needy families, and last year stuffing more than 5,000 Easter eggs for local children.
“We’re doing it,” Davis said. “It’s still baby steps, but it’s going to happen. It’s very important to respect tradition. You have to be patient. But every good leader knows you just can’t come into a unit and change it. You have to see what’s going on. You have to see people’s strengths and weaknesses, and you have to use them accordingly.”
Membership has increased during Davis’ short tenure, and 40 percent of the post’s current membership of 170 served in the military during or since the Persian Gulf War. One of the younger veterans assuming a leadership position in the post is 25-year-old Marine Corps veteran Joshua Christine, who serves as second vice commander.
Christine had visited the post a few times before joining and decided during those visits he also wanted to help bring some new blood into the post. “I wanted to make a change, and I wanted to make it a place where young veterans like me – who could have used the services and help that the Legion offers even after I got out – I wanted to make it a place that would provide that.
“When I got out (of the Marines) in 2010, I really felt like I was on my own. I didn’t have any benefits or really any help. It was years after getting out that I found the Legion and realized that this is what so many veterans need.”
Christine said he heard Davis speak during the most recent post election. “I knew that our visions for this place were the same, and I knew that he was a guy that I’d follow,” he said. “Coming here and being a part of the Legion, and particularly what we’re doing at this post, has really given me that sense of purpose that I think is so often lost with guys coming back.”
Another of the post-9/11 veterans at Post 134 is 31-year-old Gabe Vaught, who has been an Army Reservist since 2001 and deployed to Iraq in 2004-2005. Vaught first became aware of Post 134 when Davis was looking into getting the post involved in dragon boating: a form of boating first used by the Chinese in which human passengers paddle in a long boat, often racing other dragon boats. Vaught has been a dragon boater for several years; he and Davis would end up connecting via Facebook.
Vaught admits he didn’t know a lot about the Legion before he joined but likes what he’s seen so far, thanks in large part to, “(Davis’) ambition, and some of the changes I've seen just since he took over there.”
Vaught also was bitten by the acting bug years ago and has appeared in several plays and some small movies. His relationship with Davis has brought him back into that fold. Vaught was one of the characters in “Chaos of the Stars.”
“I’ve been wanting to revisit my artistic side,” he said. “It’s a good release, a good venue for my inner-creativity.”
Vietnam veteran Mike Lynch, a member of Post 134, knows bringing younger veterans into the post is critical – and giving them something to do once they join is the key to keeping them.
“One way to get the younger vets in is to get them in positions (of leadership) and have things that they want to do,” Lynch said. “Most of them want to help the other vets, their buddies. I think Sean has done a fantastic job at least at turning it around. He’s real energetic. He has ideas. He’s got contacts. He’s been bringing people in, and it really is helping. We’re starting to see the new members getting involved.”
That’s the key, Johnston said. “Sean has sort of given life back to the post,” she said. “We’ve had younger people coming in and volunteering to do projects that we’re getting kind of too old to do. They’re our future, and Sean has been a force behind this.”