American Legion Post 152 Commander Walt Lindsey takes scant notice of three elk silhouetted against the silver Idaho sunset. Perched atop the lowest brown hump of a canyon that ultimately rises to form the eastern flank of North America’s deepest river gorge, the animals watch the gathering of veterans near the water below them.
Lindsey’s mind is on crawdads and the fish he is grilling that were caught earlier that week in the Salmon River that roils past his home near White Bird, Idaho. Still dusty from an afternoon all-terrain vehicle journey up to Graves Point Lookout, Lindsey and members of the newly resurrected post have a big weekend in front of them, heading into the Fourth of July – their first American Legion crawdad boil, a fundraiser that will need at least 150 ticket buyers to break even. “We may lose our keesters, or we may hit it big,” Lindsey says.
Stunning sunsets, elk, deer and wild fish are commonplace for the veterans who live along what is known as the River of No Return. They are also important features in the newly re-chartered American Legion post’s identity and mission to help other veterans and to serve the community. “Who doesn’t like the outside?” Lindsey asks. “We have a big advantage of being in a recreational mecca. And we’re taking advantage of that. You get to breathe fresh air, and you get to see things you don’t see in a skyscraper environment.”
The post’s place in this rugged western landscape helped one particular Iraq War veteran struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He had been in the Army with Homer Brown, a river guide and mayor of White Bird, population 105. Brown was discharged in 2001. His friend stayed in and went to fight in Iraq.
“He got boogered up over there,” Brown says. “So, he moved down here to work through some problems. He had a rough go of it after he came home, but he is doing really well now.”
Brown, Lindsey and another veteran in the community, Mick Hanson, could offer river therapy to help the young veteran and later got him into a VA PTSD treatment program in Boise that proved successful. “We kind of rallied around him,” Lindsey says. “He needed help, and he needed support and brotherhood. We were trying to be there to help him.”
Realizing what the river experience and support from fellow veterans had meant, says Brown, “we were sitting around wondering what if there are other guys around here who need help? We’ve got a lot of veterans in the community, and we’d like to help them out, too.”
The White Bird veterans had worked with a group called Wishes for Warriors that takes disabled veterans on hunting, fishing and river trips. They thought about starting a new non-profit organization to offer river and mountain therapy of their own but decided instead to resurrect American Legion Post 152, which had turned in its original charter several years ago. “We realized we had to be more community focused, rather than just be veterans advocates,” Lindsey explains.
So, in June of 2016, the group began the process of chartering a new post. One veteran in the community, Tom Schwartz, had been a member of the previous Post 152 and still had its flags and some other materials. At last year’s White Bird Days celebration, the group asked other veterans to join and quickly put together the necessary 10 members to submit their charter application. More than 20 attended their first meeting, including Bobby Black, who had been a member of the earlier Post 152 and was installed as chaplain of the new post. Less than a year later, membership has climbed to more than 50. “Right now, we’re growing at an unbelievable rate,” Lindsey says.
To build awareness of the post’s return, and to raise money to support others, members painted the city hall building and picked up trash around the community. They later built a barbecue and had a feed to help build a veterans park at the town entryway. They have provided support for the local quick-response unit, emergency first responders for highway, river and home accidents far from medical services. They replaced the U.S. flag in town and spruced up a memorial to an unknown soldier whose remains were found long after the historic 1877 Battle of White Bird Canyon between the U.S. Cavalry and the Nez Perce Indians; the unidentified man is believed to have died crawling away from the battle that left 34 U.S. soldiers dead and four wounded.
“He’s had a flag placed on him for as long as I can remember,” says Maggie Abbott, who served in the Air Force from 1974 until 1980 and is now a member of Post 152; she often takes her grandchildren to the roadside memorial below the battlefield which she calls “the soldier in the ditch. I’m very proud of our vets, no matter how old they are.”
“I think it’s very important, not just to represent ourselves but to carry on memory and respect for those who have fallen some years prior, who have served our country, and the families they left behind,” says Hanson, who served in the Marine Corps between 1989 and 1993.
As Post 152 was taking shape last year, the full scope of American Legion service came into focus for the White Bird veterans.
“The thing that gets us is these younger guys who have come back from Iraq or Afghanistan who served since 2000 or so, and they start their own organization because they don’t feel like there’s a place for them,” says Brown, adjutant of Post 152. He says young veterans often don’t understand the Legion’s role in a community “until they actually look into it and find out what it actually is. Younger members that we have in the post are here because we went out and explained it – that this is what we have going on. This is where we are at. We have a lot of younger members signing up here because we are able to find them, talk to them and educate them. We have a lot of fun stuff going – from going out four-wheeler riding, building that barbecue, which was a hoot … the cooking and the good food that comes out of it … so we just kind of keep things welcoming, I guess. When we see younger guys that have been in the military, we go talk to them about and say what the post is.”
Marty Buck, an Air Force veteran and owner of the Arrowhead Sport Shop, a general store in White Bird, says he never was interested in joining a veterans service organization until he moved to White Bird. “Frankly, there was no appeal in it for me, and I was busy,” says Buck, a new member of Post 152. “But there is appeal now and here. This is a close-knit group in a place that’s full of veterans.”
“We’re trying to better ourselves, as far as fixing our park up, doing a veterans memorial and inviting the community to our events,” Hanson says. “Brotherhood and sisterhood. It’s a relaxing organization, but there is a lot to do. Outdoor events. And there’s going to be a lot more to come.”
“It’s invigorating,” says Lucky Gallego, second vice commander and service officer for Post 152, who came to Idaho after he retired from the Marine Corps in 1999 after serving in multiple operations, including Beirut in 1983, South America and Desert Storm. “If you take a look around the community, you see all the smiling faces. You see all those who haven’t had the experiences I have, and I share it with them. They don’t know what it was like to be over there. They are fascinated with it and want to know more.”
Gallego says Idaho was a perfect fit for him after 22 years as a Marine. “I found it very tranquil. There were no helos flying overhead. I ended up staying.”
As for his experience with the Legion post in White Bird, he says, “they welcomed me with open arms.”
Having also welcomed Brown’s friend home and helping him make the transition, the White Bird veterans understand what it means to embrace new members. “We actually started out helping one individual, and he got the attention he needed,” Gallego says. “We thought there was something more we could do. We show (new members) what we do. We tell them what we do. We involve them to be a part of the family.”
And, Gallego says, the post makes a point to involve all the members in any initiative. “The more involvement you have in a group, and the more that you take care of your membership, the more they take care of you,” he says. “Everything we’ve done is not on a whim. Ideas are tabled until we get together. That’s what we are. This is how we roll. What that means is we will get the job done. We will get it started, and we will complete the mission.”
A Saturday morning post meeting lays out the plan for the crawdad boil. Members haul chairs and tables out of the Oddfellows/Rebekahs hall to the lawn between the Silver Dollar Saloon and Arrowhead Sport Shop. Live DJs and karaoke are on the schedule. The post has purchased 400 pounds of crawdads, along with sausage, potatoes and corn on the cob. They are raffling a Yeti cooler and other items.
By 4:30 p.m., every chair is filled. Lindsey and other post members fill plates for a couple of hours before the contest begins; one of the contestants is a former Vietnam War combat nurse. Lindsey goes on to win the karaoke contest in a sudden-death sing-off.
After clean-up of the first American Legion Post 152 Crawdad Boil, members are delighted to find that they have not fallen on their keesters, having netted $1,400 after expenses, to put toward the park and other community service activities, and to bring others who may need some river therapy into their company.
“We want this to be the coolest post in the nation,” Lindsey says. “I don’t see an end to it. I see us being a 1,000-member post … because our philosophy is a little bit different. We’re a little more laid back. We’re just vets, just trying to get through the world together.”
To celebrate the crawdad boil’s success, members take a Sunday morning jet boat trip up the Salmon, Brown at the helm. At the put-in, they meet a Vietnam War veteran who is not a member of The American Legion and ask him to join them.
Accompanied by active-duty Air Force Master Sgt. Jonathan Taylor, who has come up to the Salmon from Mountain Home Air Force Base for the weekend, they bound up the rapids in the bright early July sunshine, stop to look at some ancient petroglyphs in the rocks along the river and tie off at a sturgeon hole Brown thinks has some promise.
Sure enough, just a few minutes after he throws out a line, there’s a hit. On the other end, an 8-foot-10-inch white sturgeon that weighs in the neighborhood of 300 pounds begins a one-hour fight with the Post 152 veterans. “That fish has lived through our nation’s wars,” Brown says with a grin.
Master Sgt. Taylor rotates in to help reel in the big sturgeon. There is no place he would rather be on leave, he says, than among his fellow veterans on the Salmon River. “There is an unspoken bond between us,” he says. “We all know what we have been through.”
The sturgeon makes many runs on the veterans until finally, it’s close enough that Brown can jump from the jet boat and coax it up to shore. The veterans, including the new recruit from the Vietnam War and the Post 152 member still serving in the Air Force, surround their catch, stretch out the ancient fish, measure it and pose for pictures from their smart phones.
Gallego, in a burst of excitement shouts out what has become the post’s motto: “That’s how we roll!”