SUMMIT COUNTY — Ever since a group of World I veterans got together to form a new organization for those who served in the military a century ago, The American Legion has fought to serve those who served their country.
"During that 100 years, they’ve been very active in getting veterans benefits from Congress," said Bill Hostutler, chaplain with American Legion Kneil-Lawrentz Post 255 in Tallmadge. "Probably one of the most influential lobbies in getting benefits for veterans."
In March 1919, members of the American Expeditionary Force met in Paris to get the ball rolling in forming the organization, according to The American Legion’s website. Mike McClain, commander of Charles Faust Post 281 in Cuyahoga Falls said the key member of that group was Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of the 26th president.
"If it hadn’t been for him, we probably wouldn’t have our rights as veterans as we do now," said McClain.
Jim Garrison, adjutant with Lee-Bishop Post 464 in Hudson, said the post actually marked the 100th anniversary during its 2018 Veterans Day ceremony by the Boy Scout Cabin on the southwest corner of the city green. Garrison said a plaque with the names of Hudson residents who served during World War I was removed from the city’s clock tower, cleaned and then installed at a World War I memorial. Garrison said the project was put together by local architect Chris Bach.
"The members who founded the post [in 1920], their names are on that plaque," said Garrison.
After that initial meeting in Paris, The American Legion’s name was officially adopted and a draft preamble and constitution were approved at a caucus in St. Louis less than two months later and the organization’s emblem about a month after that. In September 1919, Congress chartered The American Legion and its first convention took place in Minneapolis. Among the actions taken, the preamble and constitution were approved and Indianapolis was chosen as the site of the national headquarters. Representatives also approved a resolution to support the Boy Scouts of America and now The American Legion is the chartering agency for more than 1,700 scouting units.
After that, The American Legion began working on its core mission of helping veterans and their families. Through efforts at least in part by The American Legion, the U.S. Veterans Bureau, later the Veterans Administration, was created in August 1921. But what the Legion calls its "single greatest legislative achievement" was the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, more commonly known as the original GI Bill of Rights, came near the end of World War II. It made it easier for eight million veterans to go to school, get better jobs, and purchase homes and President Franklin Roosevelt signed it into law on June 22, 1944,
In 1966, the Legion began its campaign, which continues today, for a full accounting of those missing in action; in 1982, it donated $1 million towards the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.; in 1983 it sponsored a study looking into the effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam veterans; and in 1989, after years of effort by the Legion, the VA was elevated to cabinet-level status and the U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals to deal with veterans claims became operational.
In 1990, the Legion established the Family Support Network to help families of deployed service members and in October 2001, created The American Legion Scholarship Fund to benefit the children of service members killed on or after Sept. 11, 2001.
A recent action, which The American Legion has pushed for years, finally took effect earlier this year when Congress expanded who was eligible to join the Legion. For most of its history, only honorably discharged veterans who served during congressionally designated conflict years could be members, but now veterans who served at any time after World War II are welcome and The American Legion now has nearly two million members.
"We’ve been trying for a long time to change that criteria so that anybody who served on active duty and honorably discharged can join," said Hostutler.
Over the years, the American Legion has taken action on other private and legislative initiatives to help veterans, as well as providing help to medical causes, such as a $50,000 grant to help the then small and struggling American Heart Association in the 1940s, as well as the nation’s youth.
As Veterans Day approaches, local American Legion posts are planning how they will mark the day. Hostutler, an Air Force veteran who served with the Strategic Air Command from 1954-58 under Col. Paul Tibbets, pilot of the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, said the Tallmadge post will take part in a ceremony at the Old Church on Tallmadge Circle, beginning at about 10 a.m. Mike Shuman, a Vietnam War veteran, will be the principal speaker.
Hostutler said the post, which was chartered around 1946, is now involved with a city veterans committee that works on planning anything involving veterans, such as Memorial Day and Veterans Day observances.
"We’ve expanded [observances] because we have more resources to do that sort of thing," he said.
McClain, who served in the Army from 1968-71, including 11 months in Vietnam, said the Cuyahoga Falls post, chartered in 1923, will take part in an observance at the Veterans Memorial in the Broad Boulevard median off Front Street starting at 11 a.m. Monday.
Garrison, who served in the Army from 1974-80 and was stationed in West Germany, said the Hudson post will take part in a brief observance when the last of a group of flags put up around Memorial Day along Veterans Way is taken down. It will be near the Milford Drive end of Veterans Way, but not until Tuesday at 4 p.m. because the post did not want to ask city employees, who are needed to take the flag down, to work when they are off Monday, said Garrison.
Veterans day was originally Armistice Day marking the end of the First World War at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918. and McClain said The American Legion’s founding was directly related to problems veterans were already experiencing following their service in that conflict. This was why that group including a president’s son met in Paris within months after the war’s end.
"That was one of the reasons they banded together," he said. "To make sure the government showed some accounting towards all the people that were exposed to gas when they went, the different health issues that they had when they came back. They just didn’t want veteran oversight to be forgotten."
Reporter Jeff Saunders can be reached at 330-541-9431, email@example.com or @JeffSaunders_RP.