'New blood and new excitement'

Having served in the Air Force for six years, Brent Webb found himself having trouble getting used to the civilian world. But after a friend advised him to visit American Legion Hollywood Post 43 in Los Angeles, Webb found the going a little easier.

“I felt like I finally found people I could connect with,” said Webb, now 28. “I felt like I had an outlet to be able to help support my community and take care of people that were important to me.”

When his plans changed, Webb ended up moving to Chicago. But before he did, he got some advice from fellow Post 43 members. “(They) were like, ‘You’ve seen what a really good post can be. Find a post and get as involved as you can and see if you can make something really positive out of it,’” Webb said.

The 28-year-old has done just that. About a year after moving to the Midwest, Webb joined Tattler Post 973 and soon became post commander. In that role, he and other Legionnaires have helped turn things around at the 71-year-old post, making it a community centerpiece once again.

Webb said the first time he came to the post he met CJ Seestadt and Ken Madsen. Wanting to get as involved as he could – and wanting to take advantage of the free time he had while finishing up his degree at DePaul University – he began helping out at various post events.

Seestadt and Madsen, already leading a movement to revitalize the post, urged Webb to consider taking the post commander role. A few months later, the pair had convinced Webb he could handle the job.

“I was nervous,” admitted Webb, a recent graduate of DePaul University. “I’d never been in a position of leadership. I was an instructor in the military, but I’d never been involved in something of this capacity.”

Seestadt, 48, joined the post three and a half years ago. Turning things around required getting the post’s older membership to buy into the plan and then find someone willing to lead. Knowing Webb’s age might be a concern to some members, Seestadt pulled out a history lesson.

“I told them, ‘Hey, how old were these guys when they came back from World War II and were running the place?’” said Seestadt, the post’s Junior Vice Commander (Entertainment). “There was a transitional period, but it’s all been positive. We’re growing at such a pace now that we’ve gotten people’s attention.”

The revitalization effort included revamping the social area of the post to make it friendlier to potential members. New events conducted by the post included a comedy night, a movie night and a jazz night – events “that would attract people … young veterans,” Seestadt said. In addition to raising the post’s profile, it’s also created a larger revenue stream. The post went from making $300 a year to around $3,000 a month.

“We knew individuals who were interested in doing these events and were looking for space to do it,” Webb said. “We decided to say, ‘You know what? Let us experiment and see if it works. If it doesn’t, we’ll stop. If people have a problem with it, we’ll stop.’”

The post also began establishing relationships with other organizations in Chicago, including fellow veterans organization Chicago Veterans. Kevin Barszcz, one of the founders of Chicago Veterans, now serves as Post 973’s Senior Vice Commander (Membership). He helped facilitate the relationship between the two organizations, which led to Illinois Legionnaires supporting Chicago Veterans’ recent Ruck March.

“I think it’s important … for the city of Chicago,” Barszcz said of the relationship. “I think that all veterans organizations … should have to come together. At the end of the day we’re here for one reason: to support our veterans. I always see it as one team, one fight.”

Madsen, who serves as Post 973's Junior Vice Commander (House), said the post’s upswing has been a source of pride. “When you walk in here, it doesn’t look like (no one's) been here in six weeks,” he said. “You would come in any night of the week and literally have the place to yourself. We’ve turned that around.

“It’s absolutely fantastic. But the one thing that I’ve liked is that it hasn’t been to the exclusion to the people that were here before, nor do we exclude the people that are coming in. It’s been a great meld of the old and the new.”

Peter Kakurba, a 21-year member and past post commander, said when he joined Post 973 he was placed on a waiting list for three years. The Vietnam War Marine Corps veteran said membership and activity dropped before the recent revival. Through mid-June, the post was at 162 members – three more than this year’s goal.

“A lot of the old-timers were passing on, and we needed a tradition for the new guys,” Kakurba said. “(Webb) had good ideas. They started drawing the people in, and little by little we started getting members in. We were right at the bottom of (the department’s) Ninth District) (in membership). Now we’re near the top. New blood and new excitement.

“We decided to try these things … and see if it worked," Webb said. "I think a lot of people are looking for excuses … to support veterans. By trying to do these things, we happened to make it work.

"Whenever people come in, we try to make sure that we’re really welcoming, and we do show them that we have our older members here, and you can learn a lot from them. But we are also here with a lot of young people. A lot of people respond to that.”