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How The American Legion reaches out to military families

WASHINGTON (July 15, 2011) – 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. “We also 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.

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

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 the Legion's outreach efforts, he received many responses from Legionnaires 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 to Afghanistan.
  • 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.”

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. On their motorcycles, the Riders also volunteer many hours as escorts for military funerals, visits to VA hospitals, veterans homes and Warrior Transition Units.

Recently, Legion Riders in Kansas 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.”

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. 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 an assistance request online.

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