For years you’ve seen them in patriotic parades and charitable motorcycle rides. They operate posts across the United States for the benefit of former servicemen, spouses and children. They sponsor thousands of junior baseball teams, teen leadership programs and countless scholarships.
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Nationally their members volunteer a million hours per year to community and veterans’ causes, raising consciousness, awareness and money.
Legionnaires are vets who served America during times of crisis. They eagerly look out for one another and the community at-large.
The Legion is represented throughout each state in numbered posts. California has 480 posts, including the El Dorado American Legion Post 119 situated at 4561 Greenstone Road in Placerville near Mother Lode Road.
Local Legionnaires number more than 600 in addition to the 100 wives, daughters and sons. The whole family can be part of Legion life. Military wives, widows and daughters can join the American Legion Auxiliary, while sons can be part of the American Legion Sons. They meet at the post for regular monthly meetings or informal get-togethers including Monday Night Football and open bar on Fridays.
The sprawling post was chartered in 1920, under the American Legion California Department. States are called departments in Legion-speak.
Modern, spacious and equipped with a commercial kitchen, it is regularly rented by community organizations and private groups for meetings, weddings and receptions. The Legion is self-sustaining through membership dues and rental income.
Combat veterans such as volunteer bartender Milt Bandera and 24-year veteran Ellen Springer-Maxey have found a second home.
Bandera was a sailor on the captured American ship Pueblo 46 years ago and was brutally imprisoned by North Korea for 11 months.
Springer-Maxey, a retired Master Sergeant who drove vehicle recovery operations in Desert Storm, also enjoys the clubhouse atmosphere where everyone has paid dues in one form or another.
“Vets tend not to glamorize or over-sympathize the hellish time other vets may have suffered but deeply respect and understand the sacrifice,” noted Dusty Deryck, Post 119 Commander. “There’s lots of stories here. There’s a lot of love and outreach here, too.”
Mike Muetz, retired state park ranger, is the adjutant and building manager, his wife Judy is the finance officer and historian. The busy bar manager is Lee Sanders who oversees a bartending staff of 14.
Former El Dorado County Sheriff Hal Barker is the S-5, or planning manager and recruiter. The post is also ably administered by two vice-commanders, a judge advocate and chaplain/sgt. at arms.
Active in the community
Commander Deryck is proud of the role Post 119 plays in the community and in the lives of his Legionnaires.
Twice a year his Post hangs the American flags which border Highway 50 in Placerville. It offers scholarships and monetary awards to high schoolers and teaches state government through Boys and Girls State, a weeklong model of the legislature in which the youngsters research and argue real issues and legislative bills.
Other services include getting members’ legal issues into Veterans Court, where their issues are heard in context of their service.
“Thirty-five percent of our vets are damaged. We try to facilitate appropriate care,” said Deryck. “We even have a funeral honor guard detail ready, willing and able to serve at the family’s request. Our funeral detail is available to all veterans, to help with their memorials, if requested.”
Deryck, a career GI and former black ops helicopter pilot in Vietnam, is somber when considering his vets.
“All gave some,” he quotes, “some gave all.” The old soldier squinted. “There’s still a lot of healing still going on.”
Members always welcome
With more than 30 thousand military veterans in the county, he and Barker seek and welcome membership interest in Post 119.
“Come visit us,” invited Barker. “Look us over. This might be for you.”
“The American Legion is the place for you to help your buddy and for your buddy to help you.” Deryck paused. “The battle may be over but guys still need one another.”
“We are veterans just like you. We care about America, our fellow veterans, our families and our children. As members of our Post we continue to serve our God, our country and our community,” said Barker.
There to help
For Legionnaires the post is not just a giant rehearsal hall for yesterday’s deployment stories. It is about assisting veterans and their families right here and now. It lobbies for them, counsels them, works for clarity and action with the Veterans Administration and does so with honor and respect. It makes connections, helps find jobs and, particularly for Vietnam vets, welcomes them home.
To be eligible for American Legion membership, the veteran must have served in the military during specific times of conflict such as World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada/Lebanon, Panama, Persian Gulf, Operation Desert Shield/Storm or the Gulf War/Wars on Terrorism including Iraq and Afghanistan.
The women’s Auxiliary is well known for its annual Red Poppies campaign, a legendary fundraiser. On Memorial Day and Veterans Day, millions of red crepe paper poppies — all handmade by veterans as part of their therapeutic rehabilitation — are distributed across the country in exchange for donations that go directly to assist disabled and hospitalized veterans in communities.
Connecting the visual image of the poppy with the sacrifice of service made by veterans has been an important goal of the American Legion Auxiliary Poppy program since its inception in 1921. Last year the Auxiliary distributed 3 1/2 million poppies, raising $2.1 million.
Nationally, the American Legion was chartered by Congress in 1919, in response to the sagging morale of American soldiers stranded in France following World War I.
Founded as a patriotic, mutual-help, war-time veterans organization now numbering about 3 million members, men and women, it oversees nearly 15,000 Posts worldwide. These Posts are organized into 55 Departments — one each for the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, France, Mexico and the Philippines.
The institution’s headquarters are located in Indianapolis, Ind., with additional offices in Washington, D.C., where Legion representatives politely and continuously enlighten Congress about veterans’ new and ongoing needs.
In addition to thousands of volunteers serving in leadership and implementation capacities, the national organization has a regular full-time staff of about 300 employees.
At the national, state and local level the Legion strives to promulgate patriotism and compassion. The local post sustains the mission with pride, energy and dignity.
The American Legion Post 119 can be reached at 530-626-3956.