When longtime participant Todd Harris learned the 2020 American Legion Legacy Run was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic, “it was a heartbreak.” But when the opportunity to take part in the Pony Express – which left California Oct. 7 and traversed 2,300 miles over seven days on the way to Indianapolis, bringing with it donations for The American Legion Legacy Scholarship Fund – Harris jumped at the opportunity.
“We consider this a family reunion. We only get to see each other once a year,” said Harris, a member of John D. Wibby Post 86 in Overgaard, Ariz., and a member of the Legacy Run’s advance team for nine of his 12 years he’s been on the ride. “When they came up with the Pony Express, we were thinking ‘hey, this is a little better. It helped out quite a bit. We still had a little reunion.”
But it was also about the cause, raising money for The American Legion Legacy Scholarship Fund, which Harris said “is a commitment close to the heart. Many of us know people who are injured (while serving in the military) or (killed in action). It’s just a common goal that’s very worthy. And once you’re in, you’re hooked.”
The Pony Express started with three American Legion Riders in Los Angeles and grew to 35 motorcyclists plus passengers by the time it wrapped up in Indianapolis on Oct. 13. National Commander James “Bill” Oxford met up with the ride along the way and was at American Legion National Headquarters when $83,562 was collected from ride participants for the Legacy Fund. Included in that donation total was $46,000 from the Department of Missouri, much of which came from another successful in-state Legacy Run this summer.
“We’ve all faced COVID, and we’ve seen the repercussions from that. But we’ve still … continued to do what we do,” Oxford told the Legion Riders. “This is a perfect example (of that). These individual states … making things happen, creating the rides we’re seeing take place, it’s just a token of … what we still can do.”
The Legacy Fund provides college scholarships to children whose parents are U.S. servicemembers who died while on active duty on or after Sept. 11, 2001, or whose parents are post-9/11 veterans with a combined Department of Veterans Affairs disability rating of 50 percent or greater. The pandemic hasn’t lowered the need to continue to fundraise, the national commander said.
“Even though we’ve been shut down because of the COVID pandemic, we’re still awarding those scholarships,” Oxford said. “It’s because of the contributions that everybody’s making today. The Legacy Scholarships that we fund out of these donations is just a way to continue to honor our fallen men and women who lost their lives in service to this country.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you to everybody here today for realizing the values of these Legacy Scholarships.”
National American Legion Riders Advisory Committee Chairman Mark Clark, who has taken part in multiple in-state Legacy Runs this year, reminded the American Legion Riders that donations for this year’s Legacy Run will be accepted until Dec. 31, 2020.
“This is a worthy case,” Clark said. “(The Pony Express) will lift the spirits of our Riders across the country who live in places that are closed down. You all are part of that. You made the ride here to send a message to our Legion Family that no matter what happens and what’s going on in our society, the American Legion Riders are going to find a way.”
Jeric Wilhelmsen – a past commander of Hollywood Post 43 in California, where the Pony Express kicked off and where Wilhelmsen and a handful of others started the trek – said taking part in the ride initially seemed “like a very fun thing to do – to be able to ride across the country. And I really enjoy just being with the other Riders. It’s a family affair. It was an opportunity to be back with those fellow Riders."
But for Wilhelmsen, it also was a time to do what he called completing the mission. “I understand … we’re not able to have the (Legacy Run),” he said. “So I saw this as a great opportunity to do the job and the mission that we do every year. I wanted to be part of that.”
Wilhelmsen said the relationship he has formed with other American Legion Riders “is very similar to being in the military, where you’re put together with a group of people that you’ve never met before, but you all have a common mission. Through this common mission you grow this bond. That’s what I really appreciate about it.”