American Legion Past National Commander James E. Koutz suspected the crowd would be pretty good March 27 for an Operation Comfort Warriors benefit at Kenny N. Dowden Wayne Post 64 in Indianapolis. The annual event had to be canceled in 2020 and 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so he thought the American Legion Family would be excited to get together again for ham and beans, music, games and fun – all for a good cause.
“It was half full by 11,” Koutz said of the event, scheduled to start at noon.
The crowd, the camaraderie and the contributions were more than he expected. “It was a really, really great day,” Koutz said after the event raised $106,025 – nearly $50,000 more than any previous best year since the benefit began in 2013. More than 350 attended, primarily members of the Post 64 and Beech Grove, Ind., Post 276 American Legion Families. “There wasn’t a chair left. There were people standing, people in the back room, and kids had a designated area. It was really a family event. I was at a loss for words about the turnout.”
He said many of those who attended were new to the Legion and to Operation Comfort Warriors. Brochures and booklets were distributed, and OCW merchandise was also offered in return for donations.
As national commander for the nation’s largest veterans organization, Koutz made Operation Comfort Warriors his marquee fundraising mission in 2012 and 2013. When his term ended, his passion for OCW did not fade. Since his year as national commander, he has helped raise millions of dollars for the program that provides comfort items and recreational opportunities for wounded and sick military personnel and veterans in severe need. OCW grant items have included socks, clothes, video games, arts and crafts, televisions, iPads, sporting equipment, winter kits for homeless veterans, food, rehabilitation equipment such a recumbent bike or elliptical, fishing trips, tickets to baseball games, family passes to theme parks and more.
Koutz has traveled to multiple states promoting OCW, but his home state of Indiana has always come up big for the program. And at the end of the benefit event March 27, “the crowd went crazy when they gave me the check for the $100,000.” That came from the Post 64 event itself and other fundraising activities leading up to it. Every dime of the $5 per-plate lunch went right to OCW, and contributions poured in from individuals as well as Sons of The American Legion, American Legion Auxiliary and American Legion Riders. “The Auxiliary, the Sons and the Riders all raised money,” Koutz said. “Most of this was all Sunday.”
“OCW has caught on, and it’s staying that way because we work it,” Koutz said in an October 2021 interview. “We keep it going. And the more PR we get out about it, the better we are … (Donors) know that 100 percent will go to the troops. That’s why they stick with it. Money is going to stay with OCW. And as long as we are serving active-duty soldiers and veterans, we will have OCW. That’s what The American Legion is about.”
As part of the benefit, American Legion Department of Indiana Commander Mark Gullion and Past National Commander Koutz unveiled a 73-year-old, newly restored stained glass window of The American Legion emblem. The illuminated pane, which had been in storage after it was recovered from the original post home, was crafted in 1949 and now has a permanent place inside Post 64.