C. Michael Fairman, co-founder of Summit for Soldiers, referenced the preamble to The American Legion Constitution in his group’s presentation to the 98th National Convention of the nation’s largest wartime veterans organization Tuesday in Cincinnati. The line he quoted: “to consecrate and sanctify our comradeship by our devotion to mutual helpfulness.”
In doing so, the retired Navy corpsman connected the dots between the World War I founders of The American Legion and post-9/11 generation of veterans with whom he served in the Global War on Terrorism.
Fairman and six other Summit for Soldiers veterans took The American Legion emblem to the highest mountain in the world last spring. On Tuesday, they brought the emblem patch worn by Fairman on the summit of Mount Everest on May 19 to American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett and presented it to him on behalf of the “silently fallen” – veterans who have suffered mental injuries and taken their own lives – as well as those who are working through difficult transitions.
“That part of the preamble is very important – the comradeship that for us began with two people, grew to four people, then eight, then 10, 12 and 20 and so on,” Fairman said after speaking to thousands of veterans and their families at the Duke Energy Convention Center in Cincinnati. “Our climbing is not the magic bullet here. It’s the comradeship. It’s the taking care of one another.”
Summit for Soldiers is a nonprofit organization, supported by The American Legion Department of Ohio, that provides outdoor experiences for veterans who may be struggling with the shift to civilian life, including those who deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and other service-connected mental conditions. Based in Columbus, Ohio, the group conducts “adven-therapy” – opportunities to network through outdoor activities that range from bicycle rides to trail hikes to mountaineering expeditions.
A group of Summit for Soldiers members trekked to Everest Base Camp in Nepal as Fairman was making his summit climb in May. Along the way, they distributed tents and other supplies in villages that had been devastated by two natural disasters – a major earthquake and a deadly ice flow – in the previous two years. The Summit for Soldiers group providing supplies wore black polo shirts bearing the Legion emblem throughout the relief effort.
That experience was so moving for Operation Enduring Freedom Army veteran Anna Pelino that she is going back immediately for a three-month tour to volunteer in Nepal’s remote schools. “Going with Summit for Soldiers opened my eyes to all the good that can be done and how possible it is,” said Pelino, who struggled with the transition to civilian life after serving in psychological operations in Afghanistan and is finding relief through service among her fellow veterans. “If you do something you love and help people at the same time, how could you be happier?”
Joining Fairman and Pelino onstage were Summit for Soldiers members Richard Amaroso, Allen Diamond, Steve Downey, Andrew Oakes and Dietrich Stallsworth. All are members of The American Legion and have found synergy by connecting the two groups.
Says Fairman: “Why re-invent the wheel when we already have an establishment (in The American Legion) that has a wealth of resources? What we want to do is interject a little different concept to reach the post -9/11 generation.”
“I think The American Legion is heading in the right direction and attracting younger people, doing things that don’t fit the stereotypes and breaking into new areas,” Pelino said.
Amaroso, an Army infantry veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, got involved with Summit for Soldiers after hitting the depths of his post-service life. “I was coming out of VA,” he explained. “I was in there for 10 weeks, inpatient PTSD and substance abuse program, and one of the patients there linked me up with them. It just kind of spouted from there.”
He went on a 12-day adven-therapy trip to Colorado with Summit for Soldiers and then decided to move from his hometown of Cleveland to Columbus in order to be closer to his new network of friends. Camaraderie through a devotion to mutual helpfulness proved to be the best medicine. “I don’t think words can describe it,” Amaroso said. “In Cleveland, I have great friends there, but no military friends. When you talk to somebody who has been there, seen the same things, done the same things, a lot of times you don’t even need words. They understand, and that’s enough.”
Former combat medic Steve Downey, inaugural commander of American Legion Post 808 in Akron, Ohio – which has grown to become one of the biggest campus posts in the country – said connections with young veterans can effect positive change as the nation’s largest veterans organization draws nearer to its centennial. “The Legion is at a precipice where it needs to go one direction or another and, without appealing to younger OEF/OIF veterans, you can see where that leads,” he said. “With Summit for Soldiers and other organizations like the University of Akron post, it really sets the Legion up for long-term growth, identifying what veterans now want. We don’t need to come home from a deployment and go grab a beer. We can communicate on Facebook about what we want – whether it’s PTSD therapy, or guys who just want to graduate school and go get a job. Those are latent deficiencies for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans that The American Legion can fulfill.”
The purposes of The American Legion, he added, have not changed since the preamble to its constitution was crafted in 1919. “The core values that drive the mission statement for The American Legion will never change,” Downey said. “But the execution and strategy of that moral code have to change.”
Fairman said the group was delighted to present the national commander with the emblem they took into the Himalayas. More importantly, he added, the convention and appearance in the September American Legion Magazine allowed them to reach more veterans who may need help.
“To have an audience like that, to get our message out and hopefully be an encouragement to other people, it’s really paying off,” Fairman said. “We’re getting calls from other places – people who want to join our activities and to bring our activities to them.”
To learn more about Summit for Soldiers, the group’s website can be found at www.summitforsoldiers.org and its Facebook page is at www.facebook.com/summitforsoldiers.