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PUBLISHED: 4:53 PM on Wednesday, March 12, 2008
American Legion celebrates 90 years of veteran service
In 1943, a man scrawled on several pieces of hotel stationary what would become the GI Bill of Rights; signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1944. This man was past national commander of the American Legion, Harry W. Colmery. He embodied what members of the American Legion strive to exude: to continue serving their country well after their time in uniform.

The not-for-profit American Legion will celebrate its 90th year since it was chartered by the U.S congress during the weekend of March 15-17. The Posts will be having their own small celebrations, according to Jim Pisa, department commander for the state of Alaska and American Legion member for 34 years.

"I know the old vision of an American Legion Post is a bunch of guys sitting around drinking beer telling war stories," Pisa said. "You're always going to have that, but there's something about military personnel, whether you are Marines, Coast Guard, Army, Navy or Air Force, you have a bond. You have something in common and it's good to sit around and tell the war stories ... that's history - you've lived history."

If you served at least one day of active military duty between these dates then you may qualify to become a member of the American Legion

• Aug. 2, 1990-cessation of hostilities as determined by U.S. Government to Dec. 20, 1989-Jan. 31, 1990 (U.S. Army)

• Aug. 24, 1982-July 31,1984 (U.S.Navy) • Feb. 28, 1961-May 7, 1975 (U.S. Air Force)

• June 25, 1950-Jan. 31,1955 (U.S Marines)

• Dec. 7, 1941-Dec. 31, 1946 (U.S. Coast Guard)

• April 6, 1917-Nov 11, 1918 (Merchant Marines 12/7/41-8/15/45 (only eligibility)

For more dates visit the American Legion Web site at www.legion.org

There are seven Legion Posts in Southeast Alaska, 36 in the entire state and over three million members nation wide. Auke Bay's Post 25 has been around since 1954. In Southeast there are between 8,000 and 9,000 veterans out of the 70,000 veterans in the state in the state, according to Pisa, adding that Alaska holds the largest population per capita of veterans in the U.S.

"The military is very present here in Alaska and we are here to support them," said Pisa, who served in the Navy during Vietnam and the Coast Guard later on.

"We will help out with, if say a husband gets deployed and a mother is taking care of the kids alone and needs her grass mowed, or someone to baby-sit she can call the American Legion hotline number," he said. "If a car won't start, they can give us a call, we are here to help the families as well as the veterans."

A veteran is eligible if they have served in the military during a conflict. Once an application has been filed, Pisa recommends getting in touch with a current American Legion member or Post and they will meet with the candidate.

It's a good idea to have your DD-214 (discharge papers) ready for verification of your service. Members must pay yearly dues, which vary from Post to Post.

Besides the benefits, which are similar to many other organizations, such as prescription discounts, the American Legion offers many programs.

"One of the oldest programs is American Legion Baseball. This started in 1925, and many of the major league ball players have played American Legion Baseball one time or another. Chad Bentz was a Juneau resident who played up in Anchorage and he went on to play for Montreal and Washington for a while. "It's a very popular program," he said.

Other programs include High School Oratorical competitions, which reward up to $25,000 in scholarship at the national level and the Boys State and Girls State programs. Boys State, for young men who are juniors in high school, is a week-long program in which they learn how government is run.

In Alaska they go to a camp in Wasilla for a week and elect a mayor, write resolutions and bylaws and meet with local state representatives. The program usually accepts around 60 boys. Other states such as Florida or Texas have around 2,000-3,000. Two boys will be selected at the end of the week to attend Boys Nation, where they will go to Washington D.C to meet with congress, senators and even the President of the United States. The American Legion pays almost all expenses for the boys. Girls State is run very similarly by the women's auxiliary.

"We have a Halloween program which is just one of a few in the country, we do fire safety, work with boy scouts and girl scouts, we are heavily involved in all things veteran, we always have members who are in Washington D.C. who lobby for better (Veterans Affairs) care and we have a new program called the American Legion Riders," Pisa said.

The Riders program, a motorcycle club, has for the last two years raised thousands of dollars in funds for the American Legacy Scholarship: a college fund for children who have a parent that died in combat since Sept. 11, 2001. When the Legion has their national convention, the Riders bike from the headquarters in Indianapolis to whatever city the convention is being held that year. Whether it is Reno or Salt Lake city, this ride takes from four to five days, as they stop at different American Legion Posts to raise funds. In 2007 they raised over $4,000 for the scholarship.

The American Legion has been involved in the Vietnam, Korean and WWII Memorials, as well as aiding New Orleans veterans when Hurricane Katrina hit.

"It's a great organization if you want to join," Pisa said. "One of the things the American Legion was big in during the last decade in Alaska was lobbying for a veterans home in Palmer, along with the VFW and DAV...we lobbied for 25 years and finally got it, its working out really well."

This fall, a VA outpatient clinic will be established in Juneau. For years the VA would pay to fly veterans to Anchorage. "Recently we have been lobbying for an outpatient clinic here in Southeast and it's happening. It will be a lot more convenient for veterans from ... Hoonah or Sitka so they can get here in one day and back where as often times they will be stuck in Anchorage for a few days. Its silly to go all the way up to Anchorage to get your blood pressure checked for an $800 plane ticket."

For more information on programs and benefits of joining the American Legion see: www.legion.org


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