John Elskamp (left) shares in Willard B. Hinnant's ceremony where he received his overdue Bronze Star medal.

Legionnaires pursue medals owed to vets

It took nearly 70 years for retired Army Staff Sgt. Willard B. Hinnant from Selma, N.C., to be awarded the Bronze Star medal – a recognition he earned for his acts of bravery during World War II but never received. Hinnant, like many other veterans, would still be waiting to receive earned military honors if it wasn’t for the Veterans Legacy Foundation and its special group of volunteers: Legionnaires. 

The non-profit Veterans Legacy Foundation, located in Cameron, N.C., was founded in 2010 by John Elskamp, a retired Air Force veteran and member of American Legion Post 28 in Lillington, N.C. Elskamp founded the organization in effort to conduct what congressional aides and veteran agencies no longer have time for – tracking down overdue medals to veterans from World War I to post Desert Storm.

“It’s rewarding when we help veterans get the recognition that they’re owed,” said Elskamp. “All of the people that work with me are just as passionate as I am about helping our veterans.”

The ability to  pursue awards owed to veterans isn’t foreign to Elskamp; that was his job while on active duty, and his passion for it hasn’t resided. Now, Elskamp and his colleagues, which consist of around 10 volunteers, wear many hats when it comes to tracking down the medals. They are detectives looking for platoon leaders and commanding officers; researchers pouring through old historical files; and fundraisers seeking state and federal grants, a well as charitable donations. The group offers their services free of charge because they understand the value of leaving behind a legacy.

“What I did in the military is important to me and my family, and earning a medal is something you want to leave behind,” Elskamp said. “This is why the group is called Veterans Legacy.”

Since it’s establishment, the foundation has given overdue recognition to nearly 35 veterans in several North Carolina counties, and currently has 80 active cases. Each case can take anywhere from 30 to 40 days to complete, or up to several years for the more difficult ones. And more importantly, an official ceremony is hosted when a veteran is awarded for his or her heroism.

The foundation seeks ceremonial support from the local National Guard. They will ask National Guard members to attend the ceremony and even send a one-star general, or another servicemember of higher rank, to present the award(s) to the veteran. For Hinnant, the Bronze Star medal was pinned to his suit on the steps of the Johnston County Courthouse in Selma where an audience of family, friends, Legionnaires and Legion Riders applauded in excitement.

“We haven’t been forgotten,” Hinnant said. “That’s the big thing really.”

As word of the Veterans Legacy Foundation’s success continues to rapidly spread, resulting in other states contacting the group for assistance, Elskamp said the foundation’s goal is to expand outside of North Carolina in hopes of giving more veterans the recognition they deserve.

Visit the Veterans Legacy Foundation’s Facebook page to see many of the veterans who have been honored for their service thanks to the volunteer efforts of Legionnaires.