Gary Tanner, chairman of The American Legion Department of Michigan's Reconnect Committee, interacts with children of military personnel at the opening of Elmobility Room in Dearborn, Mich. Photo courtesy of Gary Tanner.

Department of Michigan reconnects military community

An initiative of American Legion National Commander Denise H. Rohan is for posts, districts and departments to reconnect with deploying or returning military personnel and to report those efforts on a form added to the 2018 National Membership Awards Points Manual.

Department of Michigan is successfully achieving this initiative as its reconnect program has become the “go-to” resource when a state veteran, servicemember and their family is facing financial hardship, needing assistance with reintegration, or looking for other support services. This is thanks in part to Gary Tanner, chairman of the Department of Michigan’s Reconnect Committee, who revitalized the program eight years ago by thinking creatively when it comes to ways to meet the needs of America’s heroes and their families when an active military base isn’t right next door.

He attended National Guard and reserve Yellow Ribbon Workshops statewide and connected with family readiness groups to identify what the critical needs were and how best the department’s Reconnect Committee could address and serve those needs.

“Once we started providing reconnect program services, it rebuilt and re-solidified our relationships with the military units in our state and the National Guard units,” Tanner said. “We say what we are going to do and then do what we say. We are doing the right things for the right reasons at the right time.”

During Tanner’s first year leading the Reconnect Committee, he was contacted by family-owned Aco Hardware wanting to work with the department to serve military personnel overseas. The committee contacted servicemembers and asked what they needed – answer was sporting goods. Together, the department and Aco Hardware shipped 3 tons of sporting goods (300 sets of golf clubs, thousands of basketballs, soccer balls and footballs, and more) with free assistance from Kalitta Air to American troops in Iraq.

“If it was a sporting good, we had it,” Tanner said. The feedback from troops was sincere appreciation. And the soccer balls became a life-saving resource. Tanner said the troops gave soccer balls to local kids to not only “win their hearts and minds,” but while traveling if they saw kids playing with the sporting good than that was the route they took; if not, they avoided the path in caution of IEDs.

The strong relationship the Reconnect Committee built with Aco Hardware and its 60 stores statewide sparked other supporters which has led to the committee’s thriving reconnect programs. Those programs include:

Patriot Fund. The fund provides financial assistance to Michigan veterans, servicemembers and their families who are experiencing hardship and do not qualify for other financial relief, such as the Legion’s Temporary Financial Assistance program, due to no children in the home. “The Patriot Fund has been one of our hardest working programs since we founded it,” Tanner said.

Michigan Wounded and Returning Warrior Program. This program also provides financial assistance, along with post-traumatic stress workshops at the department’s retreat facility (Wilwin Lodge in Custer, Mich.), assistance with disability claims and home needs, and all-expenses paid retreats to resort locations such as Mackinac Island, to help families reconnect.

Tanner contacted Mackinac’s tourism director to share how the Legion wanted to send families, who were referred to him for needed assistance, to the island. That conversation resulted in a hotel providing a three-day, two-night stay once a month along with other island retailers offering free bike rentals, dinner shows, carriage rides, meals and ferry services to the island. The retreats are of no cost to the family.

“The retreats became (The American Legion’s) way to thank wounded warriors and send them and their families on a retreat to bond,” Tanner said. “This program has been so well-received and has provided so much support, especially for our OIF/OEF veterans.”

One hundred percent of donations to the Patriot Fund and Michigan Wounded and Returning Warrior Program go directly to the cause. The Reconnect Committee started with $4,000 in its budget and has helped raise more than $350,000 for the programs from the generous support of Legion posts, Legion leadership and the Legion Riders, as well as outside organizations “who see what we’re doing and believe in our programs,” Tanner said. “Organizations keep seeking us out to work with us because they know that 100 percent of their donations go directly to making a big impact in our state.”

Elmobility Room. The Reconnect Committee received one of five Sesame Street theme rooms by Sesame Workshops in New York. The committee developed a mobile version of the room in order to travel around the state to National Guard and reserve units. The Elmobility Room is equipped with Elmo-themed DVDs, books and educational toys, and it serves as a place for children of military personnel to play and learn while their parents attend meetings. It’s free and staffed by Legion Family volunteers.

James Schutze Department Reconnect Award. Each year the Reconnect Committee recognizes a post that brings awareness to the department's reconnect programs and its mission at the local level. Before his passing in 2011, Schutze served many leadership roles in the Legion, including vice chairman of the Reconnect Committee. "Jim wanted to ensure that the families of our deployed troops were well taken care of and when the servicemember returned home that they received the care and assistance they deserved," Tanner said. This award is presented to a Michigan post that most exemplifies Schutze’s "spirit of service to our servicemembers, our veterans and their families."

Tanner travels around the state to speak about the reconnect programs and to share “why we are out there helping and the importance of what we do,” he said. “This helps to spread the word about The American Legion’s mission and to strengthen our reputation in Michigan as the premier source for assisting and serving our veterans and military families.

Learn more at www.michiganlegion.org/reconnect.