Last November, in a Massachusetts town along the Vermont border, a young mother who had just given birth to her second child was turned out on the streets by her parents.
The woman's husband was a soldier serving in Afghanistan, and her parents did not approve of the war.
"They just tossed her out, along with her two children. So the Red Cross called us up and we found her a suitable place to live," says Steven Jimmo, state chairman of The American Legion's Family Support Network.
Legionnaires moved quickly, working with the new landlord to get the homeless family settled. The night before Thanksgiving, Jimmo drove more than two hours to hand-deliver a check to the landlord for a security deposit. While inspecting the house, Jimmo and other Legionnaires discovered that a lot of basic housekeeping items were missing.
"So we contacted the local American Legion post and it responded immediately. They worked hard over the next 24 hours to get the necessary amenities," Jimmo says. "They provided curtains for the apartment, additional food, furniture and toys for the children. They made sure this young woman with her two infant children – whose father was on duty overseas – had a memorable Thanksgiving."
As in other states, The American Legion works closely with Massachusetts National Guard and reserve units, reaching out to help our troops and their families. Jimmo says the Legion often helps military families avoid having their utilities turned off, homes foreclosed and other domestic calamities.
"We usually have companies beating down our doors, wanting to assist these families during their hour of need. So we've organized them into a network willing to do things at cost, which the Legion often covers," Jimmo says. "In all of these cases, the families in need are never asked to pay for anything."
Not only for veterans
American Legion National Commander Jimmie L. Foster says many people think his organization only helps veterans, "but that definitely is not the case. On any given day, one or more of our Legion posts is lending a hand to military families – everything from emergency rent payments to fixing a car or mowing a lawn."
Foster says the Legion was founded by active-duty troops who fought in France during World War I. "It's a fact that most of our members are veterans, but we also have a good number of active-duty, reserve and National Guard members. Anyone now serving in the military – or since the Desert Shield and Desert Storm campaigns – is welcome to join us."
With 2.4 million members and about 14,000 posts nationwide, The American Legion has many community-based resources and connections that help military families in ways the Department of Defense (DoD) cannot. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently said that communities need to take the lead in providing strong support networks for servicemembers and their families.
"It can't be done from Washington. It can be supported, but not led," Mullen said at a June 14 event inWashington. His wife, Deborah, added that government programs are often ineffective in helping military families. "We don't kill [federal] programs, and we need to do that."
The American Legion is well suited, Foster says, to work with DoD in providing more assistance for military families at the community level. "This is something we're very good at doing, something we've been doing for more than 90 years. Anyone can go to our Legion Town website and read about many of the ways – large and small – in which Legionnaires are honoring the service and sacrifices of our troops and their loved ones."
Outreach to military families
According to the research institute RTI International, married servicemembers make up 55 percent of active-duty forces and 48 percent of the reserves; more than 40 percent of America's servicemembers are parents. It is small wonder that DoD has created Family Assistance Programs, Family Readiness Groups and other support services for military families.
Barry Searle, director of The American Legion's national security/foreign relations division, says much of what the Legion does for servicemembers, their spouses, and children remains under the radar of DoD's senior leadership "because most of the help we're giving is at the local level, outside the Beltway. But just about every day, we're making a difference in the lives of some military family out there."
In a recent informal survey that Searle did on outreach efforts, he received many responses from American Legion posts and departments on how they have been helping servicemembers and military families in dire situations, including:
- A Delaware reservist, his wife (who just lost her job), and six children, who had no fuel for their home in the dead of winter.
- A Massachusetts family who lost everything they owned in a fire while the spouse was deployed toAfghanistan.
- Servicemembers stationed at Fort Dix, N.J., who wanted to spend Thanksgiving with their families just before a 12-month deployment, but couldn't pay for their travel.
- An unemployed father in Virginia who couldn't afford to see his son graduate from Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, S.C.
- A Wyoming veteran waiting for his VA benefits, who needed food, roof repairs, some new windows, and heater repair.
- An Air Force servicemember in California, with a five-year old son, who had her car broken into; everything was stolen, including her rent money.
- An active-duty Marine and double-amputee, who could not afford $3,000 for modifications to his home and vehicle to accommodate his disability.
"In each of these cases and many, many more, Legionnaires took care of the problem," Searle says. "They bought the fuel, they paid for clothes, they bought the ticket, or fixed the roof. And what they couldn't do, they got patriotic businesses to do the rest. That's another great thing about the Legion – we don't just help as much as we can. We go out and get other people to lend a hand as well."
Heroes To Hometowns (H2H)
"We help a lot of our active-duty people and returning veterans through our Heroes To Hometowns program," says Joe Sharpe, director of the Legion's economic division. "Sometimes they contact us directly and sometimes they're referred to us by other community-service organizations. Whatever they need, we try to take care of it for them."
The Legion started Heroes To Hometowns (H2H) in 2006 as a transition program that sets up support networks for severely injured troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Many Legion posts and departments raise funds for the program, and an annual H2H Golf Classic is held each year at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington; last year, the golf tourney raised $25,000.
"We assisted more than 1,000 returning veterans last year," Sharpe said. "Everything from helping them with household needs to holding job fairs and showing them how to start their own businesses." H2H sponsors job fairs at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and recently offered an 8-week entrepreneurship course there.
Severely wounded veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan are encouraged to visit the Legion's website and submit an application for assistance.
H2H isn't the only program The American Legion operates that benefits military families. Others include:
- Temporary Financial Assistance (TFA)
- Operation Comfort Warriors (OCW)
- Family Support Network (FSN)
- Legacy Scholarships
Temporary Financial Assistance (TFA)
The Legion's TFA program offers financial assistance to minor children of servicemembers or veterans who are eligible for Legion membership. "As of June 2011, we've assisted more than 370 children this year with temporary financial assistance," said Bob Caudell, deputy director of the Legion's children and youth programs. "We provided their parents with a total of about $173,000 in cash grants."
TFA was created by The American Legion in 1925 to help keep the children of deceased or disabled veterans in their own homes. Through this program, a local American Legion post can request cash assistance from the Legion's national organization to help military families pay for shelter, food, utilities and health expenses for their children.
"When a military family has exhausted its finances and can't find other resources, we encourage them to apply for TFA from the Legion. We can provide them with cash grants to tide them over for a while, and help keep the children in a more stable home environment," Caudell said.
In 2010, the Legion helped 1,408 children of servicemembers and veterans throughout the country with more than $515,000 in TFA cash grants.
In the case of damage and displacement from state or federally declared natural disasters, servicemembers who have joined the Legion and their families qualify for grants up to $1,500 from the organization's National Emergency Fund.
Operation Comfort Warriors (OCW)
"Operation Comfort Warriors is The American Legion's response to the needs of our troops recovering in hospitals that can't be met by DoD," says John Raughter, the Legion's communications director. "We give our wounded and injured servicemembers comfort items that DoD isn't allowed to purchase for them. Everything from sweatsuits to DVDs.
"So we visit our troops in hospitals and warrior transition units – from Walter Reed in D.C. to Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego – and give them a few gifts that make their recovery time a bit easier."
Since The American Legion started OCW in 2008, nearly $500,000 in donations to the program has been used to deliver comfort items to recovering troops around the world. OCW is a successor to an earlier Legion program that delivered more than $335,000 in comfort and recreational items to wounded troops at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
Raughter says one of OCW's recent donations provided enough funding to fully equip a photography club for the Marine Corps Wounded Warrior barracks at Camp Pendleton.
That particular instance of outreach garnered a thank-you letter from Marine Lt. Gen. George Flynn, who wrote in a letter to the Legion's national commander that "your contribution and commitment of support to the brave men and women who have so courageously defended our great nation during a time of war is truly appreciated."
Family Support Network (FSN)
"We wanted a program that would streamline the process of connecting military families to The American Legion family," says Jason Kees, assistant director of the Legion's children and youth programs. "The Family Support Network provides a mutual introduction, so when the need arises to ask for help, no one is a stranger."
FSN is a highly localized program, dependent on the resources a local Legion post can bring to bear in providing for a military family's needs. Kees says those needs can be as simple as providing dependable child care for a single afternoon, "or maybe they need a new roof, because the old one leaks in seven places. And the spouse is deployed to Afghanistan. That's when our network kicks in – the bottom line is, we're going to try and help any family of a servicemember or veteran who needs it."
Legion posts may have no good solution for some problems, but they can still provide good referrals. Kees encourages military families in need to contact FSN's telephone hotline at (800) 504-4098, or fill out anassistance request online.
Originally a DoD initiative, The American Legion quickly got on board the Operation Outreach program because of its ability for extensive outreach at the community level.
"It's really about Legionnaires getting in touch with our troops, whether it's holding a huge welcome-home celebration for a unit, visiting the local armory to explain what the Legion does for military families, or a post commander visiting with local recruiters to let them know we're around to help," says Matt Herndon, assistant director of the Legion's internal affairs.
After signing memoranda of understanding with the Army Recruiting Command and Military Entrance Processing Command, the Legion has used Operation Outreach as an umbrella program for all of its military outreach initiatives, and as a means to help anyone on active duty.
"Reconnect lets us touch base with troops and their families before they even start to have problems," Herndon says. "If a Family Readiness Group can't help with a particular situation, then maybe we can. And they know about us because we've already contacted the local National Guard or reserve unit."
Legacy Scholarship Fund
In 2001, The American Legion created a Legacy Scholarship Fund to help finance the higher education of children whose mothers or fathers have died while serving in the military since 9/11; thus far, more than 80 such scholarships have been awarded.
Jill Druskis, who directs the Legion's children and youth programs, says the Legacy scholarships are an especially appropriate way to honor the men and women who have died on active duty "because they help the children of our fallen heroes to realize a secure and productive future. A good college education doesn't come cheap, and we believe our Legacy scholarships are a very meaningful way to honor those who have died serving America."
One scholarship recipient, Eva Marie Witt of Springfield, Ohio, lost her father while he was serving in the Air Force. "I just had a waitressing job, $3.50 an hour plus tips," she says. "I wasn't going to pay for college with that."
Witt recalls that she and her family were very thankful when news of the Legacy scholarship arrived. "It's just so helpful that I've been able to pay for my college, and not have that extra worry and extra stress on top of everything that I'm already dealing with."
Country music star Michael Peterson, who has performed several times for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, attends many American Legion functions and is a spokesperson for the Legacy Scholarship Fund.
"Sometimes giving money doesn't seem like a big deal," Peterson says. "But when you meet the young person whose life was changed – who went to college without having to worry about it – who got the help and assistance they would have received from their mom or their dad, you see the gratitude in their eyes.
"More importantly, you see the fruit of their life because they got a chance to get an education. There's no way at all to put a value on that."
The American Legion also offers several other scholarships for higher education.
American Legion Riders
With more than 100,000 members and about 1,200 chapters across the country, The American Legion Riders play a major role in fundraising and outreach to military families. Each year since 2006, they take to the highways on their motorcycles for the annual Legacy Run, attending Legion events along the route and raising money for scholarships, until hundreds of them arrive in the city where the Legion's annual national convention is taking place.
Erin Stein, whose father died while serving as an Air Force pilot, received a Legacy Scholarship and recently graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in veterinary medicine.
"I've had the privilege of meeting several of the Riders, and it was a great honor for me, and I definitely have a high respect for these people," Stein says. "And I would greatly encourage anybody that has the ability, to not only sponsor (a scholarship) but also to possibly ride."
The Legacy Scholarship not only made Stein "extremely happy," but also made it easier for her to attend college, "because I didn't have to worry quite so much about the finances. I really appreciate the generosity of the donors."
Last year, The American Legion Riders and other donors raised $634,000 for Legacy Scholarships.
"They're a great group to ride with and get to know," says Marty Justis, the Legion's executive director inIndianapolis and proud member of the Riders. "They've raised more than $2 million over five Legacy Runs, with each year's donation total larger than the last one. If they raised a million dollars one of these years, I wouldn't be surprised. They are incredibly dedicated fundraisers."
Justis says the Legacy Run is one of many ways the Legion Riders support military families. The Texasand New Mexico chapters have their own fundraising rides that support wounded troops at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston and other facilities. The Riders serve as honor guards at military funerals, homecomings for wounded warriors, and welcome-home celebrations at airports from Boston toHonolulu.
"The Legion Riders have a phenomenal network and they get a lot done at the local level that often goes unnoticed," Justis says. He gives one recent example where the Riders of American Legion Post 593 inConverse, Texas, contacted Riders in Hawaii and asked them to welcome home one of their post's lifetime members, Army Major Damon Delarosa, returning from his third tour in Iraq.
Michael Soucie, commander of American Legion Post 17 in Hawaii, and his Legion Riders chapter met Delarosa at the airport, which caused the major's mother to send the Legionnaires an email: "…tears are in my eyes as I write this to say thank you so much. This last tour was the hardest for us for some reason. It means a lot to us that you were there."
American Legion Riders in Kansas raised $70,000 last year for the Legacy Scholarship Fund. They also logged many volunteer hours for a variety of activities, including visits to VA hospitals, veterans homes, and the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Riley.
Recently, the Kansas Riders raised $125,000 to help cover medical expenses for Marine Sgt. Jonathon Blank, who lost both legs to an IED explosion in Afghanistan. The original goal was to raise about$15,000, but Kansas Rider Sam Langhofer says that Blank's story "touched everyone who heard it, and we soon realized we were going to get much more than we anticipated."
"I can't say enough about how thankful I am to have the support and respect of the Legion Riders and The American Legion family," Blank says. "War and the consequences of war are not a mystery to them. They get it."
Each year in Indiana, The American Legion coordinates and participates in a Blue Star Salute on Flag Day that honors all military families in the state. This year's event honored more than 300 families with sons, daughters, husbands and wives serving in uniform.
The day-long event included a musical performance by Michael Peterson, dance performances, the Indianapolis Colts cheerleaders, speeches by civil and military leaders, a parachuting demonstration and about 1,500 American Legion Riders and other veterans on motorcycles.
Jeri Scott of Mooresville, Ind., and her 12-year-old daughter Makayla were two of the people being honored that day. Jeri's husband, Bobby, couldn't attend because he was serving with the Army Reserve in Iraq.
"It's wonderful to be here around so many military families and this support network," Scott says. "It means more than people realize. You feel like you're all alone until you come to an event like this."
While the annual Blue Star Salute in Indianapolis is a heartfelt tribute to the sacrifices of servicemembers and military families, the Legion's grassroots network honors them in many other ways. For instance:
- The Legion's Department of Michigan operates Wilwin Lodge in the Upper Peninsula, a 700-acre retreat that provides rest and recuperation for returning servicemembers and their families; the department's chaplain, Eddie Brown, has created a "Buddy to Buddy" program that allows older veterans to help out those who served in OEF/OIF.
- In Billings, Mont., American Legion Post 4 worked with local businesses to provide a video-conferencing center for military families to communicate with their loved ones overseas.
- In California, American Legion Auxiliary Unit 277 – along with several Legion posts, Rider chapters and Sons of The American Legion squadrons – have developed an Impacting Military Familiesprogram, helping out expectant mothers on active duty.
- In Wyoming, a grieving mother who lost her son in Iraq spent four days seeking counseling before contacting The American Legion; less than an hour later, a bereavement counselor contacted the woman.
- The Legion Family in Erie County, N.Y., collected clothing, household goods and non-perishable food items, which were distributed to military families at the National Guard Armory in Buffalo.
"Our organization is ready, willing and able to work with DoD in providing even more outreach," Searle said. "We have American Legion posts at the local level, departments at the state level, and a national staff to help coordinate community efforts. We also have dedicated and well-trained service officers in each state, whose job is to help veterans and military families."
The Sea of Good Will
DoD's Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has issued a position paper with a title that echoes a phrase used by Adm. Mullen to describe the groundswell of support Americans have shown for those who serve in uniform: "Sea of Goodwill: Matching the Donor to the Need."
The paper describes a "reintegration trinity" that helps to ensure the seamless transition of military families back into the civilian world: employment, education and access to health care for life. By no coincidence, The American Legion is a longtime advocate of veterans employment, GI Bill education benefits and high-quality VA health care.
The authors of the paper, Maj. John W. Copeland and Col. David W. Sutherland, write that "No single agency or organization has the manpower, resources, or intellectual capital to provide a lifetime of care and support to our military family." Therefore, communities "must attempt to recognize the difficulties a separated Service member may be going through" when he or she returns home. "Selected institutions of higher learning, non-profit organizations, non-governmental organizations, community leaders, and businesses are the key players in what is already a strong Sea of Goodwill."
Peter Gaytan, executive director of The American Legion in Washington, says the DoD paper is a solid blueprint for dramatically improving America's support network for military families.
"The American Legion is already part of that 'Sea of Goodwill.' But reading that paper, it becomes obvious that the 'elephant in the room' is the Legion and other veterans service organizations," Gaytan says. "VSOs aren't mentioned one single time in a 21-page document, which tells me that DoD isn't especially aware of how much we actually do for military families."
Gaytan says the Legion works on many levels and some of its efforts get more public recognition and media attention than others. "We've been in the national media, criticizing Prudential Insurance for making money off of servicemembers' death benefits, or taking JPMorgan Chase to task because it was overcharging military families on their mortgage interest.
The American Legion is continuously engaged in veterans issues at the national level, lobbying Congress, meeting with the president and White House, and advising federal agencies. "This is certainly an important part of what we do," Gaytan says, "but most of our outreach efforts are at the community level.
"Ask a parent whose spouse is deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan whether it's more important to have a heated home in the wintertime, or to see my face on television. While it's important for the Legion to have a strong voice on veterans issues, most of what we do for military families in their communities goes unnoticed by the national media."
At a time when the federal budgets are being cut, Searle thinks DoD could benefit from a closer relationship with the Legion's outreach programs. "One thing they could do is make it easier for us to contact servicemembers who could use our help. That would speed up the process because we wouldn't have to rely on word-of-mouth so much."
The Right Thing To Do
While the Legion lobbies DoD to get access to contact information for returning troops, it uses other means to establish connections with servicemembers. One, the "Adopt-a-Unit" program, works through the military's family support structure. American Legion posts reach out to platoons, companies or even battalions deployed overseas, providing gifts and comfort items to the troops and assisting their families back home when a water pipe breaks, a furnace goes out, or someone needs a ride to the doctor's office.
Sharpe, whose economic division helps coordinate about 100 job fairs a year nationwide for veterans and servicemembers, says the Legion works hard to get more jobs for veterans and reservists. That effort goes all the way down to the local level.
"One of our Legion posts outside Fort Bragg (N.C.) ran a local job fair and got full-time work for three unemployed reservists," Sharpe says. "A few other Legion posts outside Fort Drum (N.Y.) got together and held a job fair and six reservists found employment there. And the Legion posts also 'adopted' the Family Readiness Groups for two companies of the 10th Mountain Division."
Besides adopting units and hosting job fairs, The American Legion actively recruits servicemembers and returning veterans. Each year, The American Legion's national staff travels the country, revitalizing Legion posts and creating new ones.
Billy Johnson, the Legion's membership director, says "One very important way we reach out to younger troops and their families is to help them start their own brand-new American Legion post. We sometimes read stories in the media about how the Legion doesn't have as many members as it used to, and the stereotype of our being no more than a bunch of old men drinking in bars. But, to paraphrase Mark Twain, news of our demise is premature."
While the organization's total membership has slipped by about 300,000 members over the past decade, Johnson says the Legion usually recruits more than 200,000 new members each year. "A good number of them are servicemembers or younger veterans, and part of the reason they join with us is because their families – or families of friends – have received direct assistance from Legionnaires."
Johnson recalls what one American Legion post did as its first good deed after being revitalized. "A young soldier dearly wanted to send his wife some flowers. He was deployed and had no credit card, so he called us at the national headquarters to see if we could help.
"We contacted the Department of Georgia and they immediately dispatched a crew from that revitalized post, who bought two dozen roses – with some candy, too – and personally delivered them on behalf of the soldier to his wife."
That story, Johnson says, is one of many he could tell about how The American Legion reaches out to military families. "Our volunteers do these good deeds because it is simply the right thing to do. And they do so quite well. Because each of them has served in uniform, and they understand the hardships that military families endure."