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South Dakota post takes on big role in small community

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It didn’t take Courtney VanZanten long to fulfill the national commander’s goal of three new American Legion members.

VanZanten simply attended the first high school football game of the year. “All three are post 9/11 veterans and all three came up to me and wanted to join our post,” said VanZanten, commander of Arthur T. Peterson Post 136 in Chester, S.D. “They have seen what we have done. We primed them and now they were ready.”

That’s what happens when a post establishes itself as an active leader in a small, close-knit community like Chester. There are now 85 members in the post in the unincorporated town that has a population of 250.

Every November, the post holds its Feather Party. Between 300 and 400 people play “turkey bingo,” vying for about 50 turkey or ham prizes. “For a town of 250, it's a great turnout,” VanZanten said. “It's our annual fundraiser that funds our Boys State, our oratorical programs and our scholarships throughout the year.”

It’s far from the only community activity for Post 136.

“The Legion presents colors at the local games, we do the funeral honors, but we also take on some bigger projects,” VanZanten said. “Every year we take on Paint South Dakota, which is a program where the state provides monies for paint and we provide the labor. We pick a veteran’s house and we go out and paint it, make it look pretty.”

Post member Dennis Kreul spends the winters in Arizona so he doesn’t hold an office but he’s eager to volunteer, including for the annual house-painting project. “I enjoy the painting — it’s really fun, not really work,” he said. “I like it when everyone gets together. It’s great for the community and it’s something that everyone sees.”

Kreul is even more passionate about his duty with the post Honor Guard. “These veterans have earned and deserve a proper funeral,” he said. “To me, that’s a big thing. The funeral needs to be done right. That’s my driving force.”

He credits VanZanter and post Adjutant Miranda Krumm for spearheading the post’s resurgence. When Krumm joined the post more than 10 years ago, members were not engaged.

“When I joined, we were pretty desolate,” she said. “Membership was in the low 30s. Now we are over 80. There were a handful of active members then and now we have 20 to 25 who are getting together for community events. We just had to have one or two people stand up and be a voice and that kind of adrenaline wore on to other people and all of a sudden it kept going.”

Krumm followed her grandfather, Rod Smith, into the post.

“My grandfather is still active in the post today,” she said, adding he is the commander of the 7th District. “He really didn’t give me a choice. He said, ‘Hey, there is an event going on. We need you to come and do this. Your help would be appreciated.’ Now it is a way of life. It’s expected.”

Post members range from a 22-year-old veteran to 93-year-old John Foster, a Marine who served in the Pacific during World War II. Foster, an American Legion member since 1946, has served as commander of the posts in Chester and nearby Hartford.

“They are doing a wonderful job,” Foster said of VanZanten and Krumm. “It’s unbelievable that the post has 85 members. This is a great post. I am proud to be an American Legion member.”

Foster and his wife, Betty, still live in their own home. In fact, during a spring ice storm, they were the recipients of the post’s commitment to serving its community and veterans. The county lost power for eight days. Roads were impassable for several days. It took a couple of days, but it did not stop members of Post 136 from helping out.

“Right in the heart,” Foster says, describing what it meant for post members to rally to evacuate him and his wife to safety. “That means you have someone there looking out for you.”

It’s all part of the vision for VanZanten, Krumm and others. “We're doing our best here to be an active post, to be relevant to the community and do things that our veterans really care about doing,” VanZanten explained.

Looking back, Krumm said that such involvement was a goal as the post was struggling.

“I think it was a goal. There’s always goals and hope. But I don’t know if it was a reality that would happen so soon. Now that it has become a reality, I know that we will always keep it this way.”

Like many rural states, South Dakota is dealing with a “brain drain,” losing younger professionals to more affluent areas. VanZanten sees a correlation between both the state and posts working to woo the younger generation.

“The thing that brings people back to a home post is a tie,” she said. “Maybe that is what we need to do in South Dakota. Get people volunteering. Get them active. I will always be tied to this post because I believe in this post. I am invested in this post. It is my family. It is my happy place.”

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National commander: Close loophole that leaves veterans vulnerable to predatory colleges

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American Legion National Commander James W. "Bill" Oxford issued a statement Sept. 27 affirming the importance of closing the 90-10 loophole in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

“As the original drafters of the first GI Bill, The American Legion has long advocated for securing a veteran’s right to education,” said Oxford. “Our membership has unequivocally stated that closing the 90-10 loophole through amending the Higher Education Act is critical to ensuring the Forever GI Bill is protected.

“Our position remains unchanged. The American Legion cannot support Sen. Lamar Alexander’s proposal absent a provision closing the 90-10 loophole. That is our line in the sand. The American Legion looks forward to working with Alexander’s office to secure a Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act that is in the best interest of our nation’s veterans and their families.”

The statement was issued in rebuke of draft language for the bill announced by Alexander, R-Tenn., who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Alexander’s bill omits the provision to close the 90-10 loophole.

The 90-10 rule mandates for-profit schools obtain at least 10 percent of their revenue from sources other than Title IV education funds, which are the primary source of student aid. GI Bill benefits fall with the 10 percent category, making them valuable to for-profit institutions and leaving veterans vulnerable to predatory institutions.

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‘I Am Fearless Again’: New Veterans’ Group Gives Women a Sense of Belonging

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This new nationwide networking organization restores the social and professional connections that many women lose after leaving the military.

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Public access to its local Legion

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Larry Laws Sr. wears many caps. He is executive director of First Home Alliance, a nonprofit housing counseling agency with offices in Maryland and Virginia. He has also been host and co-producer of a public access TV segment the agency sponsors, part of the “Rock Your Block” show on Fairfax (Va.) Public Access, for three years. And he is first vice commander of Paul W. Mitchell Jr. American Legion Post 114 in Manassas, Va.

This summer, Laws combined the two entities when he interviewed Post 114 2nd Vice Commander/Historian Julian Rozzell about the history of the post. The interview was taped in June and aired in July.

Post 114 was chartered in 1946 by a group of black World War I and World War II veterans, who immediately set to work building their presence and doing good works in the community. The interview aired around the time of the post’s annual charter dinner honoring those members. Paul W. Mitchell Jr. was an early recruit who in turn recruited others – including Rozzell.

Among Laws’ hopes for the interview, he says, are that it inspires viewers to “seek collaboration in furthering community activities and engagement” with Post 114, including work on adding to affordable housing for veterans, one of First Home Alliance’s missions.

As Rozzell explained in Laws’ interview, the post has “an enormous, beautiful history of how it evolved” from the support and efforts of the charter members. Learn more about that history in the interview, which can be viewed on YouTube.

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North Carolina post eyes June reopening after devastating flood

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When James Gray became commander of American Legion Post 64 in Pollocksville, N.C., in May, he set a goal of June 2020 to reopen the post, which was devastated by floodwaters from Hurricane Florence in September 2018.

Gray is still optimistic that goal can be achieved, although there’s still plenty to do.

“The last few months, we did framing in the building, electric lines ran … but we don’t have electricity. We’ve been using generators because we can’t get inspected yet,” Gray said.

Plumbing needs to be roughed in before the building can be inspected; after that, insulation and drywall can be installed.

Gray hopes to use some of a $10,000 National Emergency Fund (NEF) grant to help cover the plumbing cost. “Then I’ll move to getting insulation, then we would purchase drywall. That’s why I want to save as much as possible on plumbing,” Gray said.

The flooding from Hurricane Florence did about $80,000 damage to Post 64 and forced many residents of Pollocksville and Jones County out of their homes.

That’s why it’s important for the post to reopen, Gray said.

The renovation process has been helped through volunteer efforts from post members, Team Rubicon and Team Red White and Blue.

“The big thing right now is finding a licensed plumber to donate hours to the cause,” Gray said.

The American Legion’s National Emergency Fund provides in direct financial assistance to American Legion Family members and Legion posts directly impacted by natural disasters. Click here for more info.

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Did you know?

A veteran’s family must request a United States flag.

A flag is provided at no cost to drape the casket or accompany the urn of a deceased veteran. Generally, the flag is given to the next of kin. Only one flag may be provided per veteran. Upon the request of the family, an “Application for United States Flag for Burial Purposes” (VA Form 21-2008) must be submitted along with a copy of the veteran’s discharge papers. Flags may be obtained from VA regional offices and most U.S. Post Offices.