Legionnaire Ralph “Zoc” Zoccolillo and several other Legionnaires presented National Commander Fang Wong with a check for $11,000 in the National Executive Committee room at National Headquarters in Indianapolis on Wednesday. The money was raised through the Indiana Blue Star Salute. Photo by Doug Malin

Blue Star Salute: 'A real passion'

Legionnaire Ralph "Zoc" Zoccolillo thought back to 2006, the Indiana Blue Star Salute's first year. At that time, members of Post 145 in Avon, Ind., had only passing knowledge about the flag that honors families with loved ones at war and what Legionnaires were supposed to do about it.

Once Zoccolillo got his hands on an American Legion Public Relations Division Blue Star Salute event planning guide and followed the steps, it all became clear. "This guide brought us where we are today," Zoccolillo said. "It made it easy."

The post had its first local event to honor families of U.S. servicemembers that year. It was held at a local park and drew 55 families from the community.

The following year, neighboring posts got involved, and the Indiana Blue Star Salute reached out to a multi-county region. Today, the June event at Stout Field in Indianapolis attracts hundreds of military families from Indiana and beyond.

"It's something we can really be proud of," Zoccolillo told participants of Legion College Wednesday. "Once we saw how successful the salute was in one town, we realized how many military families there are around the state."

Six central Indiana American Legion posts and their American Legion Riders chapters work together to raise funds from corporate sponsors to help military families throughout Indiana and nearby states. In addition to Post 145, "we have Danville Post 118, Pittsboro Post 426, Brownsburg Post 331, Speedway Post 500 and 329 in Plainfield," Zocolillo said. Members of those posts, their Legion Riders chapters, Auxiliary units and Sons of The American Legion squadrons serve on the Indiana Blue Star program committee. The Indiana American Legion Riders state program also contributes to the program.

"It's year-round now - not just one event," Zoccolillo says. And each year, the event has generated no less than $10,000 for The American Legion Legacy Scholarship Fund, which provides college assistance for the children of military personnel who lost their lives on duty since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Surrounded by Legionnaires and Legion Riders from participating Blue Star Salute posts, Zoccolillo presented a check for $11,000 to American Legion National Commander Fang A. Wong in the National Executive Committee room at National Headquarters in Indianapolis on Wednesday.

"I wish we could put this in a can, mass produce it, and send it to all departments," Wong said during the presentation. "If we could get every community to have a Blue Star Salute, that would not be bad."

Zoccolillo said teamwork among posts is critical to the success of the event. One of the most committed participants in the event is retired U.S. Army Reserve Brig. Gen. Chet Wright, a combat veteran of World War II. "The fact that we're honoring the families of the people who are serving - that's what matters to me," he said following the presentation.

At 93, Wright still attends most of the organizing meetings for the Blue Star Salute, which features music, children's activities, demonstrations, parachuting, a Legion Riders convoy (usually led by a Vietnam-vintage Huey), speeches and Blue Star Banners for military families. Wright says community support for military families at the Blue Star Salute is reminiscent of the World War II days. "This is a complete resurrection of that," he said.

The next Indiana Blue Star Salute is scheduled for June 16, 2012, at Stout Field in Indianapolis. Information about the event - including how military families can register - is available online. The Indiana Blue Star Salute is a tax-deductible 501c3 non-profit organization.

"This is has become a real passion," Zocolillo said. "Every day, every month, we are working on a different project to help military families. So many of our local posts have come together. The goal is to keep making it bigger and bigger."