Legionnaire James Fleischmann remembers what it was like to serve in the Air Force and not have much in the way of expendable income. And he remembers what it was like to be away from family over the holidays during service.
So Fleischmann – a member of Stephen Ludlam American Legion Post 331 in Stone Harbor, N.J. – went to his post with the idea to send a Coast Guardsmen stationed at nearby Training Station Cape May home for the holidays to see either mom or grandma. As a result, Petty Officer 3rd Class Cameron Hutchens and Seaman Betty Siscoe will be heading home soon, all expenses paid.
“I was in the Air Force, and I know that at their ranks they don’t have two nickels to rub together,” Fleischmann said. “So I went to the post and said, ‘Let’s pick someone to send home on The American Legion.'"
The post, which each year gives Cape May $2,000 so Coast Guardsmen stationed there can purchase holiday meals, gave Fleischmann the go-ahead. A member of 331’s executive board, Fleischmann then met with Coast Guard officials to get their OK and determine a way to pick the recipients of the trips home; it was determined there would be a drawing of names.
Next came the fundraising aspect, which Fleischmann said was an easy sell. One business, Diller & Fisher Realtor, donated enough that Fleischmann realized the post could now send two Coast Guardsmen home, along with a spouse. So Fleischmann kept asking. Other businesses, individuals and organizations contributed. Post 331’s Auxiliary unit donated $100 for each individual.
“It was such easy pitch asking for money to send these heroes home,” Fleischmann said. “People are very generous when they find out they’re giving to a good cause. It didn’t take that long to get what we needed.”
The money raised allowed Hutchens, his wife Rebekah and their two dogs to fly home to North Carolina, and Siscoe – who isn’t married – to head back home to Texas. The trips include limousine service from their home or Cape May to the airport, flight tickets, ground transportation from the airport to their home, and flowers for their mother or grandmother. Siscoe and Hutchens also each got $600 to take their families out for a meal while they are home.
“The command and the staff of Coast Guard Training Center Cape May are thankful that The American Legion brought this opportunity to our members,” Chief Warrant Officer John Edwards, the training center’s public affairs officer, told the Cape May Gazette. “A lot of Coast Guard men and women are far from home conducting front-line Coast Guard missions during the holidays, and going home isn’t always an option, but these two members do get that opportunity thanks to The American Legion.”
Hutchens and Siscoe got their tickets Dec. 7 at a reception the post hosts to honor area World War II veterans. When Hutchens told his wife they were going home for the holidays, she cried. “He told me she said, ‘No one has ever done anything like this for us,’” Fleischmann said.
Fleischmann said he’s already received commitments from businesses and individuals in the community that will allow the post to repeat the generous act during the 2015 holiday season. He also would like to see other posts do the same thing.
“There are military installations all over the country that are close to Legion posts,” he said. “With a little work it can be done, and I think other posts can do the same thing if they give it a shot.”
Anyone who wants advice from Fleischmann on how to do the same thing at their post can contact him via email.
American Legion National Commander Mike Helm didn’t want to single out a Legion program for his fundraising goal during his year-long tenure as national commander. Instead, he included all six of the Legion charity programs, as well as those from the American Legion Auxiliary, in his goal to raise $4 million.
The $4 million in Legion Family charity program donations represents one part of the commander’s 4x4 plan – the other “4” represents four million members for the Legion, Auxiliary and Sons of The American Legion combined.
“The goals look lofty, both for membership and fundraising, but in reality we’ll reach those goals together,” Helm said. “If we’re going to be strong, we also need the Auxiliary to be strong, the Sons of the American Legion to be strong and the Legion Riders to be strong.”
To achieve Helm’s 4x4 goal, National Headquarters is releasing new brochures and a kiosk display. All departments will receive one American Legion Family branded kiosk. The kiosk is intended to be used to display up to nine brochures during events, such as membership recruiting functions, job fairs and community events. Posts and departments can choose which specific brochures to display, but they are encouraged to use ones promoting Legion Family membership and charities.
It is the responsibility of each department to coordinate usage of the kiosk with districts and posts that wish to borrow it. Departments, districts and posts can also purchase additional Legion Family branded kiosks through Emblem Sales. To purchase, click here.
With each kiosk purchased, 100 of the following brochures will be provided:
A new American Legion Charities brochure that provides an overview of the six programs and includes a donation form.
A trifold with membership applications for the Legion, Auxiliary and SAL.
The Auxiliary’s foundation brochure that describes its charity programs.
“Posts, units and squadrons that are doing things for veterans and for their community are growing the organization,” Helm said. “Legion involvement at the local level is very important for membership success.”
Helm also believes a strong membership helps drive donations to the Legion’s six charities – Operation Comfort Warriors, Legacy Scholarship Fund, National Emergency Fund, Child Welfare Foundation, Endowment Fund and Soldier’s Wish. Several Auxiliary charities are also a part of Helm’s $4 million fundraising goal, including the Emergency Fund, Spirit of Youth Scholarship Fund, Children of Warriors National President’s Workshop and American Legion Auxiliary Foundation.
“The exciting part about fundraising for American Legion Charities is that you can tell people that 100 percent of all money raised is utilized for the charitable purposes,” he said. “If you give $1 to Operation Comfort Warriors or $1 to Soldier’s Wish, every dollar goes toward the fund that you care about.”
Tax-deductible donations to American Legion Charities may be made by mail or online by visiting www.legion.org/donate.
A donation may be made to one or more programs of your choice. Donations provide: financial assistance to military and veteran families with children at home who are in need; relief for families of veterans who have suffered devastating losses after natural disasters; employment opportunities for transitioning servicemembers through the hosting of job fairs; and representation on Capitol Hill to protect military retiree benefits and to ensure quality of life for military members and veterans; an opportunity for youth to participate in Legion programs such as Boys Nation.
For the Department of Illinois American Legion Family, December is a time of preparation for its annual membership caravan that occurs in January.
The caravan began 18 years ago when the department noticed a decline in membership after the holiday season, never moving more than two percentage points during the month of January. To get membership back on the minds of Legion Family members, the caravan of 10 to 20 department, Auxiliary and Sons of The American Legion members visit 19 posts in several districts over the course of nine days in January. Letters are mailed to all 800 posts to notify members of where and when the caravan will stop so members will turn in membership cards. Last year, the caravan collected 2,000 membership cards.
Since the caravan began, Past National Commander Marty Conatser of Champaign, Ill., said membership numbers are now no less than five percent in January.
"It causes members to have to go out and work membership in January – to get the renewals or sign up new members so they have something to turn in at the caravan," Conatser said. "Instead of the big Christmas lull, it gets us back to doing what we know we should have been doing all the time, which is focusing on membership.
"And ours is truly a family caravan. We make it a big issue during our travels that we are the Legion Family."
A national leader also participates in the caravan to discuss important Legion issues, answer questions and promote the chosen fundraiser. Last year, the caravan raised nearly $5,800 for the Legion’s National Emergency Fund program. And this year’s national leader will be Past National Commander Dan Dellinger.
"The caravan is a motivational tool for us," Conatser said. "It increases membership, it gets us back to working membership, and it gives us a chance to take a national representative to an individual post. Many of posts will say that they never had a national officer visit before. So it’s an honor that out of 800 Illinois posts, only 19 get selected. We sell that as a positive."
Among new items being offered by American Legion Emblem Sales is a dog tag tack honoring women veterans. The dog tag is inscribed with "Women Proudly Served.”
More than 25,000 volunteers gathered at Arlington National Cemetery Dec. 13, to participate in Wreaths Across America Day, an event held in remembrance of the veterans laid to rest at veterans cemeteries across the nation. During the day’s festivities, Legionnaires, Legion Riders, American Legion Auxiliary members and Sons of The American Legion members laid remembrance wreathes on marked graves alongside servicemembers, veterans and spectators from various parts of the country.
The participants helped Wreaths Across America reach a significant milestone – laying the 2 millionth wreath nationwide in memory of Pvt. William Christman, the first soldier buried at the cemetery.
Legionnaire, Bill Gilbert, a member of Post 87 in Dansville, N.Y., said he found inspiration in the meaning of the event – “Remember, Honor, Teach.”
“This is my fifth year doing this,” he said. “I do this every year for the love of doing it. It’s heartfelt to me, and it really gives me a sense of pride to give back to the warriors that can’t be with us.”
Since 1992, Morrill Worchester – owner of Worcester Wreath Company of Harrington, Maine – and his family have been laying wreaths at the resting places of veterans across the nation. The wreaths left Harrington on Dec. 7 with a convoy of trucks, busses and motorcycles, all of whom made the trip down to the nation’s capital for the event. Along the way, the convoy stopped at schools, veterans homes and communities.
Douglas Dowling, Department of Maine 15th District commander, was part of the convoy. He said he appreciated the fact that Maine Gov. Paul LePage and his wife made the trip down for the event. “They do a lot for our troops,“ Dowling said. “It’s great. They are very supportive of veterans too.
Dowling admitted that the nearly week-long trip down took a lot out of him. But as he clutched his handmade cane engraved with an American flag, the disabled Vietnam veteran said the trip and every stop along the way was worth it.
For many, including Legion Rider Mike Cook, the event gave people a chance to not only remember the fallen, but also to pay respect to their loved ones, taking time to visit and lay wreaths and other tokens of appreciation at their graves. “It means a lot to come out here and do this,” Cook said.
After the wreaths were laid, families embraced and people wiped tears from their eyes.
“It’s and honor to remember and commemorate those who fought and died for our country,” Cook said. “They were our family members. They were our friends.”
A Dec. 9 ruling by the U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals (CBCA) has hobbled the Department of Veterans Affairs in its beleaguered efforts to complete a new VA hospital in Aurora, Colo.
The board ruled that VA had breached its contract with the Kiewit-Turner (KT) joint venture company by failing to deliver a facility design that could be built for an approved budget of about $583 million.
The American Legion has long-criticized VA’s delays and cost overruns for new hospital construction in Colorado, Las Vegas, New Orleans and Orlando, Fla. The Legion passed a resolution last May that called on Congress to improve VA construction programs, and “to consider all available options,” including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, “to ensure major construction programs are completed on time and within budget.”
One day after the CBCA ruling, VA agreed to bring in the Corps of Engineers to oversee the construction fiasco in Aurora.
Louis Celli, director of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, said VA’s Office of Acquisition, Logistics and Construction “appears to have a fundamental flaw in the way it conducts business. If senior executives in that office aren’t doing their jobs, then Secretary McDonald should fire them immediately and bring in more competent managers.”
In its 19-page decision report, CBCA noted that VA’s “current methodology appears to be counterintuitive to the Government’s ability to achieve best value.”
VA’s construction record in Aurora, the report stated, “is replete with instances in which the agency’s on-site personnel – project executive, senior resident engineer, resident engineers, contracting officer, and project coordinator for the medical center – lacked confidence in each other’s abilities and respect for each other’s actions.”
The report said VA’s construction manager on the project, James Lynn of Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc., described the department’s on-site group, “prior to a shake-up in June 2013, as the least effective and most dysfunctional staff on any project that he had ever seen.”
As early as October 2010, an independent advisor had cautioned VA that construction costs were increasing. A September 2011 VA project management plan stated quite plainly: “Problem with scope and design management has caused budget overruns.” In March 2012, KT told VA that the cost was going over the $700 million mark and, by year’s end, the cost estimate stood at $769 million.
Despite ballooning expenses, VA directed KT in March 2013 “to proceed with construction based on the drawings current at that time,” according to the report. KT replied “the VA is quickly creating a massive funding issue on this project.” Three months later, the company told VA that the Aurora hospital could cost more than $1 billion.
Celli said that VA’s insistence to proceed in the face of such serious budgetary issues was a remarkably poor decision, “given the fact that VA agreed to supply KT with updated plans that would reduce the cost, but never did so.”
American Legion representatives met with KT last August to hear its concerns about the Aurora project. “We conveyed those concerns to VA,” Celli said, “especially the fact that veteran-owned subcontracting companies weren’t getting paid – because VA wasn’t paying KT. But our complaints fell on deaf ears, because the Legion saw no response whatsoever.”
VA, the report stated, “has never sought additional funds for the project, and according to deposition testimony given by VA executives in April 2014, there were no plans at that time to ask for more money….There is little likelihood that the VA will cure its failure, given its insistence that it will neither redesign the project nor seek additional appropriated funds to complete it.”
According to a statement issued by KT, the company had tried to meet with VA four times since last August to develop contingency plans to minimize the impact on the project and Colorado veterans, in case the CBCA decision went against the department. “For three months, the VA refused to meet, choosing to listen to its lawyers who said that those efforts would be ‘counterproductive.’”
Eventually, VA agreed to a contingency plan meeting and scheduled one for Dec. 18, next Thursday.
In a Dec. 9 news release, KT said the CBCA hearing “revealed that the VA intentionally forced Kiewit-Turner to finance the project by demanding that they continue construction, even though third-party construction and design experts showed the project was going to be significantly over the VA’s budget.”
The same day, a letter was sent to VA Secretary Robert McDonald from Scott Cassels, executive vice president for the Kiewit Corporation. “The CBCA decision confirms that the contract is broken, both legally and practically,” Cassels wrote. “The VA now must quickly and carefully scrutinize all aspects of this project, make appropriate design and management adjustments, and re-procure as soon as possible to minimize further delays for Colorado-area Veterans and cost increases for taxpayers.”
New Legion supporters The Oak Ridge Boys have updated their schedule of touring and performances, and Legionnaires are encouraged to come out and show their support. The group's website, www.oakridgeboys.com, has added dates throughout 2015 across the United States. Upcoming stops include:
Tonight – Luhrs Performing Arts Center, Shippensburg, PA
Dec. 12 – Hard Rock Rocksino (Northfield), Northfield, OH
Dec. 13 – Meremec Music Theatre, Steelville, MO
Dec. 14 – St. Croix Casino, Turtle Lake, WI
Dec. 16 – Chester Fritz Auditorium, Grand Forks, ND
Dec. 17 – DeVent Center, Norfolk, NE
Dec. 18 – Corn Palace, Mitchell, SD
Dec. 19 – Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel, Tama, IA
Dec. 20 – Crystal Grand Music Theatre, Wisconsin Dells, WI
Dec. 21 – Weidner Center for the Performing Arts, Green Bay, WI
Jan. 17 – University of South Carolina at Lancaster Bundy Auditorium, Lancaster, SC
Jan. 18 – Holland America Lines-MS Eurodam, Fort Lauderdale, FL
Jan. 23 – Brauntex Theatre, New Braunfels, TX
Jan. 24 – The Grand 1894 Opera House, Galveston, TX
Jan. 25 – The Grand 1894 Opera House, Galveston, TX
Jan. 26 – The Wagner Noel Performing Arts Center, Odessa, TX
Feb. 6 – Wild Horse Pass Hotel and Casino, Chandler, AZ
Feb. 7 – Desert Diamond Casino-Desert Diamond Center, Sahuarita, AZ
Feb. 10 – Riverside, Laughlin, NV
March 2 – Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall, Fort Myers, FL
March 3 – Sunrise Theatre, Fort Pierce, FL
March 5 – Florida Strawberry Festival, Plant City, FL
March 13 – French Lick Resort, French Lick, IN
March 20 – The Birchmere-Music Hall, Alexandria, VA
March 21 – American Music Theater, Lancaster, PA
March 22 – Sellersville Theater 1894, Sellersville, PA
March 27 – Newberry Opera House, Newberry, SC
April 18 – Alabama Theatre, North Myrtle Beach, SC
April 21-23 – The Oak Ridge Boys Theatre, Branson, MO
April 24 – Golden Nugget, Las Vegas, NV
April 26 – Empire Polo Grounds, Indio, CA
May 8 – Shooting Star Casino-Showroom, Mahnomen, MN
May 23 – Country Tonight Theater, Pigeon Forge, TN
June 6 – Deerfoot Inn & Casino, Calgary, Canada
June 13 – Renfro Valley Entertainment Center, Renfro Valley, KY
June 19 – Golden Nugget, Lake Charles, LA
June 26 – Hartville Kitchen, Hartville, OH
Aug. 15 – Mill Town Music Hall, Bremen, GA
Aug. 23 – Kentucky State Fair-Cardinal Stadium, Louisville, KY
Sept. 22-24 – The Oak Ridge Boys Theatre, Branson, MO
Sept. 26 – Alabama Theatre, North Myrtle Beach, SC
Oct. 6-8 – The Oak Ridge Boys Theatre, Branson, MO
Oct. 13-15 – The Oak Ridge Boys Theatre, Branson, MO
Oct. 20-21 – The Oak Ridge Boys Theatre, Branson, MO
Nov. 3-5 – The Oak Ridge Boys Theatre, Branson, MO
Nov. 10-12 – The Oak Ridge Boys Theatre, Branson, MO
Nov. 17-19 – The Oak Ridge Boys Theatre, Branson, MO
More details and ticket information for each show can be found here. The Oak Ridge Boys Theatre in Branson was first built in 1994 for Glen Campbell, and has undergone massive renovations and improvements in the last few years.
At recent shows, the group has publicly pointed out members of the audience who are part of the Legion family; this is obviously easier to do if attendees are wearing their Legion caps or other gear, so remember to take those with you as you're heading out the door.
Airings of "The American Legion Christmas Special," featuring the Oak Ridge Boys, continue; click here to see the TV schedule.
Like many of his comrades, Army veteran Vincent Reid found himself at a crossroads in his life after completing college, serving a successful tour in the military and working several promising jobs to support his family.
“I went through a lot of things in my late 40s,” he said. “It got to a point where after 30 years of marriage and using drugs, I ended up where I am now. Instead, I should have come to talk to somebody.”
Although Reid always had a place to call home, he needed help overcoming the addiction plaguing his life. The Legionnaire found solace and a fresh start at the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training.
MCVET provides an array of comprehensive services to homeless veterans and other veterans in need, with the primary goal of enabling them to reunite with their families and rejoin their communities as productive citizens.
When the agency was founded in 1993, the founders – two of whom are Legionnaires – built the organization around the principal that it takes the entire community to help a veteran heal, said Jeffery Kendrick, MCVET’s executive director.
Nestled in the heart of Baltimore, the facility serves more than 250 veterans daily, offering various services, including a Day Drop-In program which allows vets to walk in off the street to take advantage of services that include showers and a laundry facility. MCVET also boasts single-occupancy living spaces and provides the same seamless continuum of care to female veterans.
Residents also can take advantage of educational courses offered on site or go out into the community to further their education. Stipends also are provided for individuals who fill different positions at the facility.
“When I came here I wanted to improve my employment situation and possibly go back to school,” said Army veteran Calvin Pulliam. The Richmond, Va., native said he has already accomplished a few of his goals, including serving as a security guard when he is not in class. Pulliam said he is benefitting from the services he receives and benefits from working. “I am getting better,” he said. “I’m more than seven months clean for the first time in 30 years. Before I made it to 90 days – then I relapsed for 10 years.”
The common overwhelming theme of military camaraderie, close proximity in age and the desire to accomplish personal goals helps residents foster a family-like atmosphere. “A lot of the people here have gone through the same things I’ve gone through,” Reid said. “It’s great to be able to talk to them and really truly understand what they are going through.”
“I can’t say enough about MCVET,” Navy veteran Ed Delaney said. “Through a series of losing jobs, things weren’t getting any better. I wanted to come here to get the structure in my life I really needed. It saved my life.” He said he enjoys volunteering for things and hopes to become a Legionnaire in the near future.
For most of the veterans that successfully navigate their way through MCVET, their journey is not over once they return home to their families or go on to independent living. Many go on to either become MCVET staff or volunteer in some capacity at the facility.
Legionnaire Thomas Cameron, the facilities maintenance manager, said he is no stranger to MCVET. He entered the program as a student in 1996 and became a part of the staff in 1998. “MCVET put me back on my feet,” he said. “I lost everything – my cars, home, children and myself. MCVET gave me the opportunity to put everything back together.”
Other MCVET alumni come back to volunteer their time and efforts through class instruction and mentorship, taking the students under their wing. Nelson Pettigrew, a MCVET alumnus, comes back to the center to teach classes and hang out with other veterans during their free time. “All I can hope to be is a shadow of hope that this thing can work,” he said. “It worked for me.”
While MCVET offers programs, resources and services to help veterans get their life back on track, many of the participants agreed that it is the total package. MCVET has an active choir and is also home to American Legion post 127. The aging post moved to the MCVET facility in July and has been thriving since then. The post was honored at this year’s department convention for having the largest increase in membership.
Although the post is its own separate entity apart from MCVET, it is the veterans at the facility facilitating the revitalization of the post. “A lot of us like the idea of having something else in here to do that would benefit other veterans,” said MCVET student David Moore.
Moore is an active Legionnaire and is proud to have maintained membership for the past 15 years.
For a lot of the prior servicemembers, this is a new experience, said Reid, who serves as the post adjutant. When new members join the post, they learn the history and structure of the organization. In his eyes, the Legion has enhanced the quality of life at MCVET.
Various posts and auxiliary units pitched in to provide funding and much-needed equipment around the facility. “Many (veterans) wanted to be a part of The Legion beforehand but couldn’t because they just didn’t have the money,” Reid said. But now, a free first-year membership is offered to members of MCVET.
Moore said he appreciates the fact that the post does not have a bar. Many post members can identify with the desire to not drink or relapse, thus strengthening their bonds. “We are very motivated to make this work,” he said.
Reid said the MCVET post helps educate veterans about The American Legion. “People don’t really understand the mission of the Legion,” he said. “(It gives) back to veterans and the community. I appreciate the way The American Legion helps MCVET. We get a lot of support from them.
“Together, the Legion and MCVET have given us a sense of pride – we can be proud that the services we receive really help change our lives. We feel like we can give back. We want other homeless veterans to see what we have and want to embrace our tight-knit community.”
American Legion National Commander Mike Helm's fundraising goal during his year-long tenure as national commander is to raise $4 million in Legion Family charity program donations.
Donations will support The American Legion's six charities: Operation Comfort Warriors, Legacy Scholarship Fund, National Emergency Fund, Child Welfare Foundation, Endowment Fund and Soldier’s Wish. Several Auxiliary charities are also a part of Helm’s $4 million fundraising goal, including the Emergency Fund, Spirit of Youth Scholarship Fund, Children of Warriors National President’s Workshop and American Legion Auxiliary Foundation.
Helm is rewarding those who make a donation to American Legion Charities with his "Stay On Course" fundraising pin.
Any individual who donates $100 or more to the funds will receive a pin. Three pins will be awarded to any Legion post, Auxiliary unit, Sons of The American Legion squadron or Legion Riders chapter that donates $500 or more.
To donate to American Legion Charities, visit www.legion.org/donate.