American Legion Continues 95-Year Tradition of Helping Vets and Community, Seeks Young Blood to Secure Future

By VICTORIA FORD | Feb 20, 2014
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

Service. It’s a simple word, often heard; its reach is far and encompasses much. But its meaning is felt most by those who live it – as a way of life, as a commitment, as a sacrifice.

Anyone who has served in the military during wartime, or is a spouse or immediate family member of a service member, has a place in the American Legion.

The American Legion stands for those principles of service, as well as the wholesome values of patriotism, honor and family. Born in 1919 as a patriotic veterans organization, nearly a century later, the American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary, as two separate charters, are the nation’s largest wartime veterans’ service organizations. Legion posts are nonpartisan, nonprofit and community-based, with ties to county, state and national parent organizations.

“Hundreds of local American Legion programs and activities strengthen the nation, one community at a time,” according to the organization’s mission statement.

In 1932, the Sons of the Legion was created, for boys and men of all ages whose parents or grandparents served in the U.S. military. Along with the American Legion Auxiliary, made up of mothers, wives and daughters of Legion-eligible veterans, those three bodies make up the Legion Family.

“All three place high importance on preserving American traditions and values, improving the quality of life for the nation’s children, caring for veterans and their families, and teaching the fundamentals of good citizenship,” according to the Sons’ written history.

American Legion Post #493 in the Mystic Island section of Little Egg Harbor Township was chartered in 1973, with 17 charter members whose first meeting place was located in Mystic Island. In 1978, the group moved to its current location in Little Egg Harbor, which can be rented for special events. In 2006, an addition to the building doubled the facility’s capacity. Its Sons Squadron was chartered in 1981. Today, the combined total membership of American Legion Post #493, Auxiliary Unit 493 and the Sons Squadron exceeds 700, according to Adjutant Gary True.

The post offers its facility free of charge to other nonprofit groups for meetings and fundraisers, and rents it out for family events and charitable or social gatherings.

As one of the most active posts in the state, #493 holds and participates in community outreach activities throughout the year, according to spokeswoman Sherri Korker. The next is the Polar Bear Plunge in Seaside on Feb. 22, for the Special Olympics. The participating team’s name is Team Tequila.

Post Commander Rich DiBuono added that American Legion posts adopt deployed military units, provide support for military families and elevate public awareness about the honorable nature of military service. As a proud waver of the POW/MIA flag, the Foreign Relations Commission also works closely with U.S. and international authorities to repatriate all military personnel missing in action or held as prisoners of war.

DiBuono started in the Sons of the American Legion at age 10, in his hometown of West Paterson, and became a legionnaire at age 23, in his third year of active duty. He received the nomination for post commander while deployed in Afghanistan. “So I called my wife, Pattie, and asked her – if I did, would she be all right with it? – because, without the support of your partner, there is no sense in running for that position. It takes a lot, and you need a sounding board to bounce ideas off of, and it helps a whole lot.”

Now Post #493, along with American Legion Auxiliary Unit 493, is putting out the call to the next generation of veterans to join the tradition of great work within the community. To all those who have served, the invitation stands – to come feel needed, feel like family, have fun, attend public events and make a real difference in the lives of veterans and others in need.

American Legion’s

Multi-Level Impact

The American Legion has “great political influence, perpetuated by its grass-roots involvement in the legislation process from local districts to Capitol Hill,” according to its written history. “Legionnaires’ sense of obligation to community, state and nation drives an honest advocacy for veterans in Washington. The Legion stands behind the issues most important to the nation’s veterans community, backed by resolutions passed by volunteer leadership.

“The American Legion’s success depends entirely on active membership, participation and volunteerism. The organization belongs to the people it serves and the communities in which it thrives.”

For DiBuono, the most rewarding aspect of his work with the legion is the thank-you letters and cards from appreciative people who have received scholarship money or food donations, attended parades or ceremonies. “It all brings about a feeling of military tradition,” he said.

On a national scale, American Legion Baseball is an amateur athletic program that educates young people about the importance of sportsmanship, citizenship and fitness. The Heroes to Hometowns program connects legionnaires with recovering wounded warriors and their families, providing a variety of support activities. The legion also raises millions of dollars to donate at every level to help veterans and their families and to provide college scholarship opportunities.

On the local level, last year Post #493 held the “Sing for the Shore” musical benefit for those affected by Superstorm Sandy. The post also holds an annual benefit event for the Children’s Organ Transplant Association; contributes $4,500 each year to the Pinelands Regional High School Scholarship Fund, and Pinelands sports teams; supports the local police and emergency responders; offers community service tasks and projects; performs funeral services for people who have been in the service; helps veterans in need; supports active-duty military as well as deployed troops; teaches elementary school kids what Memorial Day means; sponsors a junior baseball team; and raises funds for a U.S. Coast Guard Memorial, eventually to be erected in Cape May.

The collective voice of the legion: “We are your friends, co-workers, neighbors and concerned citizens of your community. Having served our country in uniform in time of war, we continue to serve, out of uniform, our fellow veterans and those in need in our community.”

But the continued success of the legion depends on young military servicepersons to join and carry on the mission. DiBuono called upon an old adage about young people as the “relievers”: “We need fresh legs after we have carried the torch for so many years,” he said. “They have the training, being in the military, and they know how to get things done.”

At the same time, he acknowledged, young veterans with families may find it difficult to commit free time to volunteering because they also feel a strong sense of duty at home, to make up for lost time with spouses and children, to coach sports teams, to celebrate holidays and birthdays. Family support is central to the role of legionnaire, he said.

According to DiBuono, some of the legion’s strongest selling points include: scholarship opportunities, community services, benefits such as insurance, retirement and other investment plans, discounts, VA benefits and assistance with Medicare and Social Security issues.

Post Adjutant Gary True joined 20 years ago, at age 48, a retired U.S. Navy master chief with 22 years of service. In his role as adjutant, True “provides continuity within the post,” he explained. “While the commander’s duties are largely inspirational and executive, an adjutant’s duties are administrative. The commander navigates the ship, but the adjutant is the engineer who runs the ship’s machinery and keeps it on an even keel.”

The American Legion even introduced him to his wife, Carol True, the auxiliary’s bar manager/event coordinator, so naturally the post plays a large part in their life together.

The legion is multi-generational, he noted. So many community activities focus on familiarizing kids with the legion and its mission at an early age.

Sons, Auxiliary, Riders

Support Legion Way of Life

The Sons group teaches the youngest members 10 ideals: patriotism, health, knowledge, training, honor, faith, helpfulness, courtesy, reverence and comradeship. The next test is the Five-Point Program of Service, which covers patriotism, citizenship, discipline, leadership and legionism.

At all levels, Sons support the legion in promoting veterans programs, veterans administration, home and hospital volunteerism, youth projects and fundraising. Nationally, in the last 10 years, Sons have raised more than $1 million for The American Legion Child Welfare Foundation. Members volunteered more than 223,900 hours in 2013 and raised nearly $1 million for supplies and equipment for patients in VA hospitals and VA homes (TVs, radios, medical equipment and clothing).

The American Legion Auxiliary’s promise: “In the spirit of service, not self, we stand beside our Legionnaires to support our mutual founding principles and goals.”

Support, honor and advocate are the three driving actions behind the organization’s mission.

According to Auxiliary Unit 493 officer Ruby Cramer, locally, the women’s group cares for veterans and their families by cooking and delivering meals, transporting to doctor appointments, shopping, cleaning homes and visiting in hospitals and nursing homes. Contributions to the community include giving to scholarships and local youth groups. Mission-supporting activities include donating money, clothing and food to Veterans Memorial Home in Vineland; Veteran’s Haven, a homeless veterans rehabilitation facility in Atco; and Vetworks, a food pantry in Forked River for homeless vets and military families in need.

“Troop support has been an ongoing project since 2004,” Cramer said. “Care packages have been prepared and sent to deployed troops through the cooperative efforts of local schoolchildren, local businesses, community donations and the local postal service employees, who have often personally donated to the cost of postage.”

The organization’s motorcycle arm, the American Legion Riders, is another way the legion spreads its message of patriotic and civic service. The president of the Ocean County Southern Regional Chapter is Rich Grala, who joined the legion in 1997, at age 26, after his honorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force. He returned home after active duty in January of that year and joined Post #493 the very next month, in order to stay connected to his military roots, he said. He had received his introduction to the organization from his legionnaire father.

Grala helped form the Riders chapter in 2008 and has served four years as president. The chapter includes Riders from Legion Post #232 in Barnegat. The Riders organize runs and other fundraising functions to support the legion’s causes.

For Grala, the reward comes from knowing “I am doing what I can to help not only my community, but also local veterans, as well as active-duty members in every branch of service,” he said.

Young members are vital to the organization, he said, because they bring new energy and friendship, offer additional helping hands and fill the post with promise.

DiBuono summed up: “One of the American Legion’s four pillars, Americanism, is, quite simply, love of America – loyalty to its ideals and institutions, allegiance to its flag, willingness to defend it against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and a desire to pass on the blessings of liberty to future generations.

“According to the legion’s Americanism Manual,” he concluded, “‘It is not a word. It is a cause, a way of life – the best way of life ever known.’”

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