Soldier’s Wish and The American Legion granted Vietnam veteran Joel Priebe a brand new mobility chair. (Photo by Elisabeth Bryson)

Festival perfect backdrop for Legion, Soldier's Wish

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Patriotism and country music seemed intertwined – a fact made obvious during the inaugural Tree Town Music Festival in Forest City, Iowa, May 23-25. The more than 10,000 fans that showed up for the three-day festival erupted in spontaneous chants of “USA, USA” during the Memorial Day weekend; dozens carried and waved U.S. flags during the concerts.

And smack in the middle of all of it was The American Legion. Named the official charity of the event, the Legion had a table set up in a prime location near the main gate manned by Department of Iowa Legionnaires – with a little help from their friends to the north – and right alongside a similar table manned by Soldier’s Wish personnel.

The two organizations worked together all weekend, talking up the mission of both and combining to grant a very special wish in the process. In the background, megastars in the country music industry provided nearly 20 hours of music. Toby Keith headlined May 25, while Brad Paisley originally was scheduled to be May 24’s final act but pushed his set up to early afternoon so he could accompany President Obama on a surprise trip to play for troops serving in Afghanistan. Big names such as Brantley Gilbert, Chris Young and Scotty McCreery also performed.

“I think it’s a great opportunity not only for The American Legion, but for The American Legion of Iowa,” Department of Iowa Commander Jim Demarest said. “I think it’s going to bring us a lot of notoriety. We got some questions from veterans who were here. If we can help veterans, that’s what we’re here for.”

Demarest was joined by Department of Iowa Adjutant John Derner, Department Finance Officer Ken Danilson, National Executive Committeeman Bruce Feuerbach, Alternate NECman Jerry Sebben, and department service officers Rich Anderson, Gary Carter and Gary Golson.

Also helping out with claims and benefits questions were Legionnaire Rolando Sotolongo, supervisor of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs Claims Division, and Minnesota department service officer Tom Newman.

“Being in a setting like this really improves our visibility,” Newman said. “It helps veterans reach out to engage veterans service organizations like The American Legion and ask for support when they might not normally do so.”

Soldier’s Wish, which renewed its relationship with the Legion via National Executive Committee resolution earlier in the month, had its semi trailer parked behind both tents, the Legion emblem clearly visible.

Soldier’s Wish Executive Director Kevin McDugle was at the festival with other Soldier’s Wish representatives. “We’re going to have a ton of veterans at this show,” McDugle said. “The cool thing is we get an opportunity to promote The American Legion and Soldier’s Wish in front of literally thousands of people. And you’re in the heart of America. You’re in Downtown (U.S.A.), and to be able to tell our veterans ‘Thank you’ – I can’t think of a better thing to be doing right now. It’s fabulous for both of us.”

Soldier’s Wish and the Legion also granted one Vietnam veteran a wish to remember. Joel Priebe was an Army helicopter pilot who was shot down during the Vietnam War, suffering severe burns in the crash. He now suffers from multiple sclerosis, limiting his mobility.

Priebe was invited to the show on behalf of the Legion and Soldier’s Wish under the auspices of that being his wish. What he didn’t know until he got up on stage with Legionnaires and Soldier’s Wish reps was that the brand new mobility chair he’d been given as a “loaner” to get around the festival was now his. Priebe was visibly overcome with emotion after being informed about his gift. “I said, ‘You people are nuts,’” he said. “There are a lot of people who deserve it more than me. I was overcome. It’s phenomenal. Just being here is worth it to me. But the wheelchair … I can’t believe it.”

Priebe spent the weekend shaking hands with festival goers who stopped to thank him. “People say ‘You’re a hero.’” He said. “I’m not a hero. The heroes never came home.”

The Legion and Soldier’s Wish got multiple appearances on stage during the weekend, the final time presenting a U.S. flag to festival master of ceremonies Joe Denim – who had no idea he was being presented the flag until it happened.

“I’m not normally ever speechless,” Denim said on stage. “But you guys …”