Just two months after his 18th birthday, Clayton Pitkin became one of the youngest members of The American Legion when he returned home on leave after boot camp. He joined American Legion Post 43 in Hollywood, Calif., where his father, Larry Pitkin, was the sergeant at arms.
Clayton learned the values of being a Marine and the four pillars of The American Legion from his father, who now serves on the post’s executive committee.
“My family thinks it's amazing that I am in The American Legion,” Clayton said. “Following in my father's footsteps is something I always wanted to do. I had my 18th birthday in boot camp.”
After being a Sons of The American Legion member he joined The American Legion as soon as he was eligible to do so. Clayton said he joined because he saw what it meant to his dad. “A lot of friendships, a clubhouse to come hang out at, and a lot of great people here,” Clayton said.
Larry found a kinship within The American Legion. “I found this to be the family I didn't know I had,” Larry said. “From World War II veterans to current day guys, they are all my brothers and sisters, and veterans. I don't know how I'd live my life without them.”
And now, a son.
“It was a very proud moment of my life,” Larry said of the day his son became a Legion member. “The American Legion means a lot to me and for me to be a veteran and member of the Legion is fantastic, to have my son to become a member as well, it's kind of overwhelming. It's too marvelous for words as I would say.”
Clayton is stationed at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center – 29 Palms, about 150 miles east of Los Angeles. He is training in the communications field learning electronics maintenance. The pool table in the desert barracks rec room isn’t the same quality of the one at The American Legion post, but the comradeship shared over the game is very similar.
“I've been in the Marines for nine months, as of June 1,” he said. “After this training I have another course I have to go through to learn more specifics of my job. I’ll find out exactly what equipment I'm going to be repairing and after that I'm going to a get stationed in a unit. I don't really know where at exactly yet.”
The frequent relocation of early enlistments might make it seem difficult to be engaged with The American Legion. “I've been to several American Legion posts, some completely different styles of post but wherever you go, you always feel welcome there,” Clayton said.
But the fact that there are Legion posts almost everywhere there is a military base gives a sense of belonging wherever Legionnaires may go.
Clayton has great respect for the history and tradition of the organization. “It’s great going to the post and seeing all the older veterans there. We still have a few World War II veterans, we have Korean War veterans, Vietnam veterans," he said. "Having all of those veterans there is very historical experience. Because you know they've had these insane experiences in their lifetime, and they share all their values and knowledge with you. With all of their life experience it's just great being able to go there and be on the same social platform with them. Being able to talk, communicate with them, just hang out and spend time with them, be buddies with them. It a great experience."
As one of the youngest members, the relevance of the organization is the same as it is for any other member. Clayton said that veterans groups protecting things like VA benefits and the GI Bill were a factor in joining the military. Even at the beginning of his first enlistment, transition is important to this young Marine.
“Knowing that there are such veterans organizations like The American Legion that are there to help us transition from our active-duty military service lifestyle, back to the civilian lifestyle is very reassuring,” Clayton said. “To know that we're not going to be just tossed back out there and fend for ourselves. It's really comforting to know there is a veteran’s organization out there to help us make that big transition.”
Clayton said the greatest asset The American Legion has are the people in it, and he is telling his friends they should join.
“I talk to my fellow Marines about The American Legion all the time,” he said.
When he can’t make it to his home post in Hollywood, Clayton likes to visit other posts, like the one in Palms Springs near his duty station where he was warmly welcomed. “They heard I was one of the youngest members to be a part of The American Legion and they thought it was just really cool, that I was so into the Legion, that I was ready to join as soon as I had the chance to.”
Larry has passed on a sense of pride in his military service, as well as a desire for continued service in The American Legion.
“To me The American Legion is cool just because it's a very welcoming community,” Clayton said. “My father references it as a family he never knew he had once he rediscovered it. It’s a very value based community. You go there and you really connect with everybody as soon as you get there. It's a very welcoming environment and a very cool place to hang out.”