Driving solutions, awareness and more for veterans
American Legion Service Officers helped veterans with benefit claims and appeals during the Veterans Awareness Campaign at Post 83 in Merced, Calif. Photo by Jeric Wilhelmsen

Driving solutions, awareness and more for veterans

Retired Navy veteran Bruce Fultz went to The American Legion Veterans Awareness Campaign in Merced, Calif., looking for a solution.

Fultz, a 75-year-old newly renewed American Legion member, has been encountering some challenges in completing his yardwork.

“I came down to see what was going on and to ask some additional questions about resources,” he said. “I’m getting to the point where I can’t mow my yard anymore. After speaking with the post commander, I’m feeling optimistic and upbeat. It’s nice to get a warm, fuzzy feeling when somebody says ‘yes.’”

The event, an expansion of the standard Legion revitalization membership drive, was held at American Legion Post 83 in Merced from Feb. 17-19. American Legion members connected veterans with accredited service officers, raised awareness of the Be the One initiative, and formed enduring bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood.

American Legion Post 190 member Jeffrey Freeman presented his personal Be the One story twice on Feb. 18. The day included other presentations about benefits claims, American Legion history and programs, and the organization’s Tango Alpha Lima podcast.

Veterans service officers were on hand throughout the event. They discussed benefits, claims, appeals and related topics with veterans.

Among those participating was Refugio Llamas, a veterans service officer for Merced County. The retired Marine Corps infantry veteran has been in his role for just under a year but already sees the benefits.

“I have a lot to learn but it has been very exciting to be able to help veterans,” said Llamas, a member of American Legion Post 166 in Los Banos. “Anything I can do to assist with veterans causes, I’m going to be there.”

Llamas understands what veterans go through as they are transitioning.

“I know first-hand the hardships they go through. The time they are away. The missed opportunities. They get left behind. They sacrificed for the greater good. For me it is especially important.”

Llamas has already seen his share of successes in his work as a service officer.

“We have one veteran who has been able to open a restaurant with the compensation that we got for him,” he said. “He’s very satisfied and he is giving back to the community in a way that he enjoys doing. It’s satisfying to be a small part of their success.”

As veterans were stopping by Post 83 for assistance, a membership engagement effort was underway, reaching out to veterans in the community. Some Legion members went door-to-door, others made phone calls to veterans in the community. Over the three days, volunteers processed more than 50 transfers, renewals and new memberships. Additionally, more than 20 veterans met individually with service officers.

Ed Benes, a member of Post 83, and Michele Steinmetz, a staff membership engagement coordinator, performed wellness checks on former American Legion members. In their brief outing, they reassigned a headquarters post member and renewed an expired member for Post 83.

“We wanted to support the local veterans and let them know we were there for them,” he said. “We accomplished that.”

The experience created other opportunities for Benes and his post.

“The lesson is that we need to reach out,” he said. “We can’t just assume that people will decide to join the Legion. They need to be encouraged to join and offered a hand. We can’t just sit back.”

A prime example of successfully reaching out to a veteran who needs assistance is when they called on James Cobb, a Marine veteran.

Cobb’s garage is boarded up because another driver rammed it. Benes offered assistance from Post 83 with his garage, benefits or anything else.

“That was a high point of my day,” Benes said. “He hasn’t been in the community that long, and didn’t even know where our building is located. We have people who like to help any way they can. That was a big success story. James is an old Marine too, hopefully we see more of him.”