Creedence Clearwater Revival played on the radio amid sounds of roaring laughter, “hoo-rahs” and lively cheers. The camaraderie was clear among members of the group, each donning blue hats stitched with emblems depicting their military service.
It was a celebration of the American Legion's 100th anniversary at Gunnison’s Elks Lodge this past Saturday.
“The American Legion was founded 100 years ago, under the principle of who’s going to take care of our widows, who’s going to care for orphan children — and that’s still in existence today,” explained Dean Noechel, deputy commander of the American Legion in Colorado.
The American Legion was chartered by Congress in 1919 as a patriotic veterans organization. Focusing on service to veterans, service members and communities, the Legion evolved from a group of war-weary veterans of World War I into one of the most influential nonprofits in the country.
Membership swiftly grew to more than one million with local posts springing up across the country — and Gunnison’s Post 54 is no exception.
In fact, according to Gunnison Mayor Jim Gelwicks, Post 54 was among the first in the nation, formed just 10 days after the American Legion was created on Nov. 22, 1919. Local Legion members — all of whom were World War I veterans — purchased the land now known as Legion Park in 1921 and donated it to the city.
Seven years later, the Legion built the log structure still located at the park and held their first meeting at what they referred to as “the hut” in January 1928.
In 1932, the American Legion Auxiliary was chartered in conjunction with Post 54, and the Sons of the American Legion in 2001.
Today, American Legion membership stands at nearly two million with more than 13,000 posts worldwide. The posts are organized into 55 departments — one each for the 50 states, along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, France, Mexico and the Philippines.
“This is a milestone for us,” explained Noechel. “They organized the American Legion, but they did not think the American Legion was gonna go any further. We’re all here 100 years later, and it’s really incredible to see.”
Since its formation 100 years ago, the Legion has implemented considerable social change in the United States — including through hundreds of benefits for veterans, the implementation of youth programming and even offering support to research the effects of exposure to agent orange, a deadly compound used in chemical warfare.
A better question might be: What does the American Legion not do?
Noechel also pointed to the Sons of the American Legion — a group comprised of men whose fathers and grandfathers served in the United States military.
“We always say, ‘If you want it done, ask a son,’” laughed Noechel.
Yet, the landscape for veterans is much different compared to a century ago, said Noechel. A veteran himself, Noechel served in the U.S. Army from 1999-2005 as a Blackhawk helicopter repairman and served in Iraq from 2003-2004 as a Medevac crew chief. He later was awarded the Air Medal with Valor and the Air Medal for his service.
Having served in this country’s most recent wars, Noechel acknowledges there is a generational gap.
“Of course, there’s generational change, but in order for the organization to keep growing we need change,” he said.
At Post 54, the needs of veterans has shifted over the years. In the 1920s, Legion members helped to host dances and spent time repairing toys for underprivileged children. They also paid fines for juvenile delinquents who were children of veterans in an effort to help them build a better life.
Since that time, Post 54 has served the Gunnison community in a variety of unexpected ways.
For example, each year, the Legion hosts the annual Easter egg hunt at Legion Park. They also assist in providing flags for every veteran’s grave on Memorial Day, host Veterans Day programs and are responsible for the flags flown on Main Street during holidays and other civic events.
“As the country changes, our veterans change,” Noechel added. “But now the need for the Gunnison community is more social events — veterans like to socialize.”
Pat Smith, adjunct of the American Legion in Colorado, helps do just that by organizing events for veterans across the state.
“We have 160 American Legion posts all over the state of Colorado,” explained Smith. “I help organize all those activities.”
Still, some things never change — as was evident during Saturday’s celebration.
“We’re drinkin’, we’re smokin’ and we’re telling war stories,” laughed Noechel. “It’s what we do.”
(Kate Gienapp can be reached at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)