American Legion National Commander Brett Reistad has been a member of the Legion for 39 years, active at the post, department and national level before being sworn in as the Legion’s top official last August.
He’ll spend the next five days on The American Legion Legacy Run, at times a passenger on the back of a bike. At American Legion Post 347 in Lady Lake, Fla. – the starting off point of the ride and the host of its kickoff event on Aug. 17 – Reistad expressed his appreciation for the American Legion Riders and what they do.
“This is something … not to mention what the parking lot looks like,” said Reistad, referencing the 200-plus motorcycles that already had checked in at the post. “I have so looked forward to this moment. I want to take a moment and let you know how much the American Legion Riders mean to this organization and what you’re doing with this Run, how much it means to the children of those who have given their lives to our country and those who are severely disabled as a result of their service to our country. I’m honored to be able to participate in this.”
The kickoff ceremony followed a dinner and included post and state Legionnaires, as well as praise from public officials.
Post 347 Commander Bob Kiley said while the post is used to large crowds, “you Riders hit a home run. And when this is all over, we want to know that everybody got up (to Indianapolis), did the best for the children and got back safely. You will be in all our prayers.”
Department of Florida Commander Rick Johnson will be following along with the ride via a car, though he said it’s possible he may ride on the back of a Florida Legion Riders’ trike. He also shared his same passion for causes benefitting children; one of his commander’s project is supporting COTA, the nation’s only fundraising organization solely dedicated to raising life-saving dollars in honor of transplant-needy children and young adults.
“What we’re doing here, the awareness we can bring out there with the Riders and the (Legion Family) … I applaud you for what you do,” Johnson said.
The Riders also heard from Lady Lake Mayor Jim Richards, who proclaimed Aug. 17 in his town “American Legion Legacy Run Day.” And Sussan read letters of support and congratulations from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, and U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster.
More than $100,000 was donated during the kickoff, including $55,000 from the Department of Maryland’s Gold Star Legacy Run, and a combined $22,464 from Post 347’s American Legion Family. With the money previously donated to the fund, more than $228,000 already has been raised for this year’s ride.
The results of the Riders’ efforts. More than 260 motorcycles will start the annual fundraiser for The American Legion Legacy Scholarship Fund, which provides college assistance for the children of U.S. military personnel killed on active duty on or after Sept. 11, 2001, as well as children of post-9/11 veterans with a combined VA disability rating of 50 percent or higher.
Past Department of Arkansas Commander Mike Westergren, chairman of the Legion’s National Committee on Youth Education, is accompanying the ride all five days. His committee is tasked with awarding American Legion Legacy Scholarships.
“It’s such an opportunity to actually meet the people that are responsible for doing something that has such an impact on those kids,” Westergren said. “I get to meet those kids. I get to see the change in the life that a Legacy Scholarship is able to have on them. I get to see the letters and the appreciation that comes from them because of those significant scholarships that come from the efforts of this group and all the Riders across our nation. You have made such a difference in the lives of so many.”
Verlin’s legacy continues. Just prior to the 2017 Legacy Run, 11-time Legacy Run participant and co-planner of the ride with Chief Road Captain Bob Sussan, was killed in a motorcycle accident. His wife Margaret accompanied the ride, which was dedicated to Verlin.
A year later, at Post 347, Verlin was not only there in spirit, but in gear. Margaret had three boxes of motorcycle gear that she and Verlin used brought down to Florida, where she made it available to anyone who could use it.
“There are people who cannot afford to gear up the way we felt it was important to do to be safe. We always road with complete gear: jackets, pants, boots, gloves, the whole thing,” Margaret said. “Rather than have it just sit there, we thought we’d bring it here and have the opportunity for people who could use it to take it on now (and) ride safer. The idea was that, also, Verlin would continue to ride.”
Verlin’s legacy also will continue on American Legion National Headquarters’ fourth floor, where the Emil A. Blackmore Museum resides. His vest will become part of an American Legion Riders exhibit there.
“It’s an amazing honor, knowing that people will be able to see (the vest) and see how much it meant to him to be a part of The American Legion, part of his post – China Post 1 was very dear to him,” Margaret said. “It took something off my shoulders that I found a home for it. And I know his family will be thrilled to have it in a place of honor.”
Von Abbott, Verlin’s brother and commander of MacDougall-Lowe Post 20 in Kirksville, Mo., also will ride the final leg of the ride – and the final ride Verlin helped Sussan plan. Marilyn said Verlin and Sussan already had begun planning the 2019 Legacy Run prior to his death.
“This is really an ultimate honor for (Von),” Marilyn said.
Brothers and sisters. In 2018, Arkansas Legionnaire Bob Couch lost his wife and was, in his own words, “on hard times and was having a real hard time being able to lay my wife to rest.”
But his fellow American Legion Riders rallied around Couch, commander of Post 24 in Blytheville. “My brothers and sisters in this room took care of that (financially),” he said. “For that, you have my undying love and my undying dedication forever and ever. You’ve shown what it is to be a family. You’ve shown what it means to be brothers and sisters. Thank you all.”
No nerves, just excitement. Department of Indiana Southern Assistant American Legion Riders Director Jeff Everman is taking part in his first Legacy Run. A member of Sons of The American Legion Squadron 64 in Indianapolis – where the ride will finish up – Everman has been riding motorcycles since he was 10 but just started with the Legion Riders five years ago.
He’s fully immersed himself in the program. “I’m riding every weekend one somebody’s charity ride,” Everman said. “Everybody that I have met in The American Legion … their hearts are in the right place. Everything we do is to benefit groups and for the veterans. Everything about this organization I support any way I can.”
Everman said there isn’t any apprehension about taking part in a ride with more than 200 other motorcycles. “It’s going to be awesome. I have no fear of this at all,” he said. “I’ve had every kind of bike you can imagine. Hopefully (the Run) will be something I do every year until I die.”
A model of efficiency. American Legion Post 347, the largest post in the world, is used to large crowds. And it showed. The hundreds of Riders, passengers and other kickoff attendees went through a serving line of spaghetti and meatballs, salad and bread in less than 30 minutes.
Those in attendance marveled at both the speed in which Post 347’s kitchen volunteers moved and the hospitality provided. That reaction brought a smile to face of American Legion Riders Chapter 347 Director Gene Haplea, who marveled at the Legion Family volunteers’ efforts.
“I can’t find the words for it,” Haplea said. “You can’t put a label on it. It’s one of those things that when you watch it unfold, you’re sitting there kind of incredulous that it’s happening. For us, because of what we put into it and what we were trying to achieve – to see it all come together … to see everybody coming in enjoying themselves – it’s just one of those things. You can’t say enough about it.”
Hosting the kickoff “exceeded everybody’s best expectation,” Haplea said. “We can’t believe we pulled it off.”
Track the Legacy Run and view videos from it here.