Tennessee Auxiliary President Anita Darnell and Department Commander James Patterson hold "Chris the Vet Dog" during their efforts to raise money for the purchase of service dogs for local veterans.

‘We have to work as a Legion family’

When Anita Darnell was elected as the 2015-16 Tennessee Auxiliary president, she immediately knew what her fundraising project would be – providing a service dog to a local veteran. She also knew it would take the Legion family working together to raise the $10,000 needed for one dog through Vet Dogs of America.

With the support of the entire Tennessee Legion family, Darnell not only raised the money for one dog, she raised enough money to purchase three service dogs to aid Tennessee veterans living with post-traumatic stress, a missing limb or hearing loss.

“It has been very important that the whole Legion family be a part of this because we are a family and we’ve been preaching this for years,” said Darnell, a member of Unit 287 in Medina. “To do the things that we want to do and to be the organization that we want to be, we have to work as a Legion family.”

After being elected Tennessee Auxiliary president, Darnell asked Department of Tennessee Commander James Patterson if he would help her promote her fundraiser and he “stood behind me 100 percent and made sure I was invited to all district meetings with him,” Darnell said. Every district meeting Darnell attended she brought along a stuffed dog, which she dressed in Army camo and named Chris the Vet Dog, and shared what her fundraiser was and how much she was trying to raise. Patterson’s Legion Post 19 in Columbia was the first to donate. The Legionnaires initially gave her $500 from funds that would have gone to a local veteran who had a service dog, but he had recently passed. They then passed the hat and contributed $525 more.

“In Tennessee, I have tried to make sure that everyone knows that we are a Legion family,” Patterson said. “We have to all work as a family to make projects like this work.”

Other posts, units and Sons of The American Legion squadrons throughout Tennessee also held fundraising events for Darnell’s cause, which resulted in $10,065 raised in four months.

When Darnell called Vet Dogs of America last November to inquire about sending the donations, they informed her of a promotion they had until the end of the year – two dogs for $11,000 or three for $15,000. “My heart skipped a beat because I only needed $935 more for two dogs,” Darnell said. That same week, Darnell attended Ninth District’s meeting and the Legion members donated $1,025 out of their pockets.

The next day Darnell called Vet Dogs of America and they asked “if I wanted to try for a third dog,” Darnell said. “I said, ‘Honey, I’m so thrilled to have two, but I don’t think that I can raise another $4,000 by Dec. 31.’” The organization extended Darnell’s deadline, the first time ever for them to do so, until June 2016. But Darnell didn't need that long of an extension – $4,000 was raised during the Department of Tennessee’s Mid-winter conference in late January.

“Someone made the statement to me that ‘you didn’t get the $20 or you didn’t get the $30 here’ and I said every dollar that I get is one more dollar toward the cost of a dog for the betterment of the welfare of a (Tennessee) veteran," Darnell said. "If we can stay focused on what we’re doing and our cause, it will happen.

"The most important thing that we can do is show that we are a Legion family. And that we can come together and work together and make a difference.”

Patterson believes that Darnell's project is a testament to what can be accomplished when "we all work as a family," he said. "The dogs will go to some veterans in Tennessee to make them have a better and safer life. When we can work as a family to raise money for any worthwhile project, everyone wins.”