Current Corey Edwin Garver Post 202 Commander Matthew Jabaut was part of a group of post-9/11 veterans responsible for turning the Topsham, Maine, post around. (Photo by Clay Lomneth)

Breathing life back into the post

The situation was looking bleak in 2013 for American Legion Post 202 in Topsham, Maine. Things had gotten bad – not in terms of membership numbers, but in terms of participation. It had gotten to a point where Department of Maine Adjutant Paul L’Heureux was going to pull the post’s charters if it didn’t have anyone willing to step up as officers.

Enter Nik Hamlin, then in his mid-30s. After serving in the Army from 2000-11, including in Kuwait from 2002-03, Hamlin was living in nearby Brunswick and “wanted to have some kind of a social life. I wanted to be around other veterans and see what was out there.”

Hamlin joined Post 202 and found the going rough. “I think, for the most part, everyone had given up hope,” he said. “I became commander immediately, only because nobody else wanted to. I was the only one willing to because I was so new, and I didn’t know what it really entailed.”

But what Hamlin and a few fellow post-9/11 veterans did – through the use of new ideas and relationship-building – was turn things around at Post 202. Now an active member of its community, the post participates in Legion programs, provides scholarships and supports other veteran and youth programs in the area.

The post’s evolution brings a smile to L’Heureux’s face. “Obviously they had some fresh ideas,” he said. “We needed to give them a chance to try them out. And obviously it worked.”

Instead of walking away when he found the post struggling, Hamlin wound up serving as post commander from 2013-15. “This post does a lot of good for a lot of people and helps a lot of people,” he said. “I was afraid if this post went under, closed its doors, that there would be people out there that couldn’t get help that otherwise could if we were open. I wanted to ensure that this post would be open to ensure that people could continue to receive our help.”

The process for Hamlin wasn’t easy, or fast. “It took blending the generations,” he said. “That was really difficult. It took people talking about the post again. I wanted to breathe some life back into this post, both in my generation and in the previous generation.

“The more I got people talking about the post, the more people got interested in the post, and then the more things started happening. It was kind of a lead by example. I bust my butt, people watch me do it, and then slowly they start doing it as well.”

Hamlin said turning things around took finding the right people for the right positions. One of those was Matt Jabaut, who served in the Army from 1997-2005 and met Hamlin when they served together in Kuwait. Also in his mid-30s at the time, Jabaut was urged by Hamlin to begin hanging out at the post.

“The timing was right because I had been out (of the Army) seven, eight years at that point. When I first got out I wanted nothing to do with anything military. I was completely withdrawn. I was just focused on career and other things like that.

"When (Hamlin) got involved here, I got involved. That’s what drew me in: the fact that somebody I had served with here was getting involved with the Legion. I had no idea what the rest of the Legion was about. I just knew I was coming to help my former battle buddy.”

Within three months, Jabaut had a spot on the post’s executive board. “The more we dug and the more we uncovered stuff, the more difficult it became. But (Hamlin) had a lot of ideas and a lot of visions of what this place could be.”

One of the first things Hamlin wanted to do was have members of the executive board take The American Legion Extension Institute to understand the depth of the Legion. Jabaut said that experience was a bit of an awakening.

“This is a big organization that does a lot of things and has been around for a long time and is tied into a lot of things that I happen to connect with,” said Jabaut, who attended National Legion College in 2015. “That was kind of the pull for me.”

With a team in place around him, Hamlin turned the focus to increasing the post’s visibility. “We started doing stuff in the community, which made people feel good,” Hamlin said. “If people feel like what they’re doing goes to a good cause, they’re going to do more. Keep giving them that, and once you have that, give them ownership. All of the sudden you’re in charge of this. Now you’re going to do that, and you’re going to start recruiting other people to help you. It just keeps branching out.”

Jabaut and Hamlin also regularly communicated with Jason Hall, who had gone through a similar successful effort as the adjutant of Post 86 in Gray, Maine, for the past five and a half years.

“We had resistance because some of the older veterans wanted to do things the way they’d been done 30-40 years prior,” said Hall, a 2016 National Legion College graduate. “That was the biggest challenge. (Jabaut and Hamlin) helped me as much as I helped them. We bounced off a lot of ideas – new ideas that had never been tried before. They’d come support me and I’d come support them.

“Once we did, we’d get two people to do it, and then three and then four. And the next thing you know we have 20-30 people coming over to support (Post 202’s) fundraising, and they did the same for us. We had the same mission statement. Birds of a feather flock together.”

Jabaut also formed a friendship with 47-year Legionnaire and Past National Vice Commander William “Chick” Ciciotte, a former member of Post 202 and current member of George T. Files Post 20 in Brunswick. Jabaut calls Ciciotte a mentor, while the elder Legionnaire looks at Jabaut and sees the future of the Legion.

"In my opinion, he has a lot of potential for leadership in the state of Maine and nationally,” Ciciotte said.

And both Jabaut and Hamlin praised former post commander Adrian Cole, who served in the position from 2015-16, for continuing the progress. “He took over at a very volatile time,” Hamlin said. “It was just another corner to round, but it was a really tough one. He weathered it beautifully.”

“He led us through a lot of adversity and (was) kind of the face of being the bad guy in some people’s eyes, when all he was really doing was holding the standard of what our organization is supposed to be,” Jabaut said.

Membership has stayed steady over the past few years, but Hamlin said it’s a more active membership. There are 360 members of the Legion – around 50 of those are post-9/11 veterans – and another 240 in the American Legion Auxiliary and the Sons of The American Legion. The post also has a Legion Riders chapter.

The post also has gone from struggling financially to now being able to keep its head above water.

“We used to have to fundraise all year long to pay for the Boy Scout charter,” Hamlin said. “We used to do car washes, raffles and 50-50s. We would beg, borrow and do whatever we had to do to come up with the money so we could pay for their charter so their parents wouldn’t have to have that burden. Now the commander comes up to us and says, ‘Oh, by the way, last night we paid the charter.’ We didn’t have to have a meeting on it or anything. It was just done.”

In addition to supporting the Scouts, the post also sponsors Boys State participants and provides scholarships to two local high schools.

“I think for us, it’s been a transformation … to what the Legion really should be: focusing on the community,” said Jabaut, who took over the post commander reins in 2016. “Getting back to people understanding and knowing that there are four pillars in The American Legion and what they are. Some of that had been lost over time.”

Jabaut said the post also wants to serve as a place where veterans feel they can get support. “They don’t always have a good place to go, and they don’t know about the places to go to get whatever they need, whether it’s support … or just sitting around and having people speak the same language as you,” he said. “It’s taking guys and using our service officers, either our post service officer or our department service officer, and getting them through the (Department of Veterans Affairs) system.”

And then there are the non-traditional activities like a softball charity game played in the winter for the third straight year. Hamlin saw an opportunity in 2015 to do something for the state’s homeless veterans and wanted that opportunity to be unique.

“I said, ‘We’re going to play in the cold so they don’t have to live in the cold,’” Hamlin said. “I thought it would be a good injection for the post as well, and I needed a charity event that could bring the community – people who weren’t members – in, and they could see us for what we are.”

Hamlin said the first year was “phenomenal.” Members of the community helped clear the field out from under five feet of snow and then stayed to support the event. It’s grown every year, and this year $1,100 was raised for the Maine Homeless Veterans Alliance.

“It’s just not just us,” Hamlin said. “We’re inspiring everybody.”

But for Hamlin, the crowning moment was in 2015 when the post was renamed to honor one of Topsham’s own. Army Sgt. Corey Edwin Garver grew up near the post and was killed at age 26 when an IED went off near his patrol in the Paktia Province of Afghanistan in 2013.

Corey Edwin Garver Post 202 is the first in Maine to be named in honor of a U.S. servicemember killed in either Iraq or Afghanistan. A display designed by Jabaut in the post’s upstairs meeting room honors Garver. “This is what I’m most proud of,” Hamlin said, gesturing to the display. “I pitched it to the membership one night. Standing ovation. There was no discussion.”

Garver’s mother, Ellen, came to the dedication ceremony in April 2015. “When she got done speaking, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Hamlin said.

Though he got the ball rolling for Post 202’s transformation, Hamlin insists on sharing the credit for its success. “I was only a part,” he said. “The commander doesn’t get a vote. The commander kind of throws out suggestions, and everybody goes where they want to. I had a lot of people helping me. There’s no way I could have done any of this by myself.

“To see our post go from where it was to where it is now … I look it at and I see a Legion. And it makes my heart swell.”