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Showing respect while taking on a cause

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Members of American Legion Riders Chapter 55 in Martin, Tenn., are working to right what they feel is a wrong. Long-term, however, the Riders hope what they’re doing leads to change on a grander scale.

Chapter 55 is covering the costs of installing Department of Veterans Affairs-provided foot markers on the graves of veterans buried in Weakley County, Tenn. Chapter 55 Director Jackie Laird said area funeral homes have accumulated several of these markers, some having been stored for as long as 40 years. The markers normally take around three months to arrive at the funeral home after being ordered from VA; Laird said the funeral home says it’s up to the family to ask for the marker.

Laird said he’d heard that funeral homes in the area had the markers in storage and began investigating. “I came to find out it was true,” he said. “The reason is (the funeral homes) order them from the (Department of Veterans Affairs), and for some reason they’re staying in the funeral homes. The last bit of respect you can pay the veterans is to put his foot marker down.”

But what kick-started the project was after Chapter 55 Chaplain Elton Wilkerson had a conversation with the son of a Martin resident buried in East Side Cemetery in Martin. Wilkerson found out the family had been given a price tag of $275 to install the foot marker on the veteran’s grave.

Wilkerson told the veteran’s son that The American Legion would cover the cost of the installation. “(The son) thought we were scamming him,” Laird said. “We gave him some people to contact to make sure that we were legitimate. Once he found out we were legitimate he was more than happy for us to do this. He was very grateful that we put his father’s foot marker down. He passed in 1994.”

Chapter 55 went through a lawyer to get forms drawn up to allow the funeral homes to turn the markers over to the Riders and the family to let the Riders install them at the gravesite.

The chapter doesn’t charge families anything to provide the service but when word of their efforts got out, they began receiving donations. Families who have had foot markers placed also have donated to the Riders’ cause. Laird said the chapter also will fundraise if it needs to so that families that cannot afford to have the foot markers placed on the grave can fall back on the Riders for help.

A local granite company, Quality Kitchens & Baths, has offered to cut the granite for below cost. It’s allowed for the chapter to install the markers for approximately $40 each. “We’ve gotten in touch with about a half dozen people since last year,” Laird said. “I’ve got a call this week to put two more down.

“We just want funeral homes and families to be aware that they are there. We want to get them cleared out of these funeral homes. Sitting there for 40 years is unacceptable. Every funeral home in Weakley County has these (markers). And I bet every funeral home across the nation has these.”

Laird said honoring veterans is a priority of the Riders. Last year Chapter 55 was instrumental in the erecting of a memorial in Palmersville that honors the nine crewmembers killed in a U.S. Army B-17 crash in the area in 1943.

“It took us 20 months to get that monument built, but we do get it done,” Laird said. “I heard a few years ago that a soldier dies twice: once on the battlefield or in the hospital or wherever he takes his last breath, and he dies again when he’s forgotten. This is something we’ve tried to address and show respect where we could.”


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Legionnaire shares how fallen son’s memory is kept alive

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On Memorial Day in 2010, U.S. Air Force Maj. Charles A. Ransom spoke at his First Baptist Church in Midlothian, Va., about how the holiday isn’t for outdoor barbeques but to honor veterans who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Less than a year later, Charles, 31, was killed in action in Afghanistan.

“Not a day goes by that we don’t have Charles on our minds. I wake up with him on my mind,” said Willie Ransom, father of Charles and The American Legion’s national sergeant-at-arms and Department of Virginia’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation chairman. “When you serve in the military you’re serving for a purpose – to serve your country. He served his country and died for his country because he was a patriotic person.”

Upon graduating from high school, which Willie said Charles was voted “most likely to succeed,” he attended Virginia Military Institute (VMI) where he was elected vice president of the Class of 2001. After graduating from VMI, Charles served with the 83rd Network Operations Squadron out of Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. While there, Charles shared with his father, a retired Army master sergeant, that he was going to make a career out of the Air Force.

“He liked the service because I was in the service, his older brother (Stephen) was in the service (Navy, retired in 2011), so he took that same route,” Willie said. “He was a go-getter. He was dedicated to the military. And he was unselfish.”

Willie spoke with personnel that worked for Charles at Langley Air Force Base and said on holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, he would let his servicemembers spend dinner with their families. “He would work in their place. It was really honorable of him to do that,” Willie said. “Charles was an all-around good guy.”

Two years after Charles was killed on April 27, 2011, at Kabul International Airport from an Afghanistan pilot who opened fire, American Legion Post 186 in Midlothian was named in his honor. The post has remained without an honoree since its charter in 1938. Charles was a member of Post 186, which Willie also belongs to, and became the first servicemember of the post to be killed in action.

The naming of the post to Major Charles A. Ransom Post 186 made Willie “feel proud.” A sign with the new post name was donated by the VMI Class of 2001 and hangs on the outside of the post home, while a picture of Charles hangs on a wall inside. And on May 4, a ceremony will be held at his gravesite at Midlothian First Baptist Church where post members will place the American Legion emblem next to his headstone.

Charles was posthumously awarded the Meritorious Service Medal, Purple Heart and Bronze Star. Those medals, among many other items such as his VMI diploma, pictures of him while deployed, U.S. burial flag and even the first living room suite he purchased in 2001, are in a memorial room dedicated to Charles at the home of Willie and Marysue, his mother.

“Once you lose a child like that, and when you lose someone that you really love, and we love both our sons, (the memorial room) is just something that we have to keep him going and his memory alive,” Willie said. “By being in the church like we are, we keep his memory alive when we think about verses in the Bible. We have no problem keeping him alive because he will always be in our hearts No. 1.”

Another way Willie is keeping his son’s memory alive is by being an American Legion service officer at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Va., and working with servicemembers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. “I felt that I could do more than just sit on the side and say, ‘Thank you for your service,’” Willie said. “So I got involved about 10 years ago doing claims for veterans,” including claims for veterans of the Vietnam and Korean war.

“I feel that God gave us all a mission in life to help others so this is my mission on earth now is to help others because I’ve been blessed, retired from the Department of Defense and then the military, so now I’m trying to bless someone else.”


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Lincoln’s legacy: ‘change and hope’

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The leaders of The American Legion Family joined dignitaries and department leaders from several Midwestern states Feb. 12 during the 85th annual pilgrimage to President Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Ill.

National Commander Brett P. Reistad pointed out that even though his Legion cap identifies his department as Virginia, times have changed for the better due to the president who saved the union.

“My how times have changed,” Reistad said at the observance held on Lincoln’s 210th birthday. “And they changed for the better, largely because of the president entombed just a few feet from us.

“At the start of his presidency, it was legal in half the country for one race to own members of another. Americans were divided as to whether the United States was a nation or merely a loose federation of independent states. Upon his election, the United States was already on the verge of its bloodiest war – a tragedy that would come to a merciful end in the last days of Lincoln’s life – an important outcome thanks in large part to his unwavering leadership.”

A month after swearing in as the new governor of Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker also paid tribute to Springfield’s most famous son. “I pledge to pay close attention to Lincoln’s legacy of action and his legacy of compassion,” Pritzker said at the pilgrimage. “To lead a state government guided by the pursuit of justice that recognizes that the goodness of those whose views may differ from mine is worthwhile to listen to and take heed to. And I pledge that I will move forward following Lincoln’s legacy of intellect and empathy. May we all find within ourselves the courage and the kindness that is Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.

Bob Wesley, a Legionnaire from American Legion Post 32 in Springfield, was the host of the gathering. “Today, we celebrate Mr. Lincoln’s birthday and commemorate his central role in building America,” he said. “Mr. Lincoln and his veterans freed millions from slavery, thus purging an ugly, cruel and inhumane blot on our national character, and preserved the union. ‘Freedom is not free.’ No one here will question the hard truth and painful memories evoked by these four words. As was true during Mr. Lincoln’s time and throughout our nation’s history. We are blessed with young men and women who step forward, take up arms, and risk, all too often, giving their lives to preserve our freedoms.”

Sons of the American Legion National Commander Gregg Gibbs evoked Lincoln’s promise from his second inaugural address as a reminder to what is owed to the families of the fallen. “’To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan…’ Had President Lincoln not said it first, it certainly could be deemed the motto of The American Legion today,” Gibbs said.

National President Kathy Dungan of the American Legion Auxiliary reflected on a less famous Lincoln quote. “At the end of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln made it very clear that he believed it was every citizen’s duty to immediately begin caring for the remaining soldiers and their families. In fact, he was quoted as saying, ‘you cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today,’” she said. “Lincoln’s call to action delivered over 150 years ago is alive and well in the American Legion Auxiliary’s mission to honor the sacrifice of those who serve by enhancing the lives of veterans, military and their families.”

Reistad, a retired police lieutenant, pointed to the progress society has made in the area of civil rights since Lincoln’s time but still acknowledged that work remains. “I believe the victory that most in the law enforcement and civil rights communities both seek today is a safe society where all people are treaty equally – where police officers and civilians of every race treat each other with mutual respect,” he said.

But still, Reistad said, Lincoln’s life should offer hope for America. “People often underestimated the country lawyer from Springfield, Illinois. They were wrong to do so,” Reistad said. “And people would be just as wrong to underestimate what America could accomplish today.”


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TFA has record-breaking month with over $1 million in grants

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In January, The American Legion’s Temporary Financial Assistance (TFA) program broke a single-month record in grant distribution – $1,030,163. Of the grants distributed, $1,000,500 assisted 3,120 children of 1,173 active duty Coast Guard servicemembers who were financially affected by the federal government shutdown.

The American Legion's TFA program was established in 1925, and it provides one-time cash grants to minor children of current active-duty or American Legion members. These grants help families in need meet the cost of shelter, food, utilities and health expenses to keep children in a stable environment during a time of hardship. Last year, nearly $229,000 in TFA grants supported 376 minor children of 179 veterans in 35 states.

TFA grants are made possible by donations to The American Legion Veterans and Children Foundation. The foundation supports veterans and military families in need, as well as American Legion service officers who provide free VA benefits and health care assistance to veterans. All donations are tax deductible and can be made online at www.legion.org/donate.


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Spirit of Service recipient embarking on lifetime of volunteering

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Sgt. Molly Hampton is in the Marine Corps, attends college classes and volunteers her time readily.

“Life is about people, meeting people, talking to people, helping people,” she says. “I love volunteering because I get to meet people. I get to hopefully help people depending on the event in which I'm volunteering for. I love that. I think it gives us a purpose, it makes us feel good and we're actually doing something that you usually get to see an immediate result with, which I think is awesome.”

Hampton decided to join the Marines when she was a high school senior. While in the Marine Corps, her enthusiasm for volunteering blossomed. “When I got involved with the Single Marine program, I started to see all these volunteer events to try out,” she recalled. “Once I started volunteering with the Marines, I really started to see the true value of it.”

For her volunteer efforts, Hampton was among the recipients of The American Legion’s Spirit of Service award, which she received on stage at the organization’s 100th national convention in Minneapolis last August.

“Receiving the Spirit of Service award honestly means the world to me, to be surrounded by these amazing individuals from other branches that have dedicated their life to selfless service in the military and beyond the military is absolutely humbling and amazing,” Hampton said. “It really encourages me to continue to serve others for my remaining time in the military and beyond.”

Her commitment to the Marines concludes at the end of this year. As Hampton transitions back to the civilian world, she will be mindful of continuing her volunteer work.

“I love The American Legion, especially after going to the convention,” she says. “I would absolutely love to work with The American Legion and I know that right now, because of receiving the award I was given the membership, I would also like to continue to be a Legionnaire, and continue to work with The American Legion.”

Hampton volunteers her time at Spirit Equestrian, a horse farm in Virginia, where she works with therapy horses and patients with disabilities who ride them. On Saturday mornings, she will arrive at the farm early to feed and brush the horses, then help the kids get on the horses and provide emotional support.

The patients range in age from 2 to 20 years of age. Some have physical disabilities. Other are dealing with emotional issues such as schizophrenia. “Just seeing these kids really makes me recognize I am just blessed in my health,” she said. “I love to help them in any way, especially on a horse. That's a brilliant way to help some of these kids, and they love it too.”

Hampton also routinely volunteers with the Salvation Army’s Grate Patrol, which delivers meals to the homeless on Washington’s city streets. The Marines pile into a van and follow the Grate Patrol. At various points, the volunteers stop, unload and dish out the meals.

“You see the people come up to the truck and they're struggling,” she said. “You see it in their face, you see it in the way that they look. Again, it's another reminder of how blessed we are. To be able to help these people that have a lot less than we do with just a meal is amazing. It is really fulfilling when they say, ‘Thank you, God bless.’”

After leaving the Marines, Hampton is eyeing a return to the classroom. She wants to teach her students to explore their worlds through reading and writing. As a civilian, Hampton plans to continue her volunteer efforts.

“God inspires me to serve,” she says. “I just think that we're called to serve others. I think that God calls us to serve others, and when I think about God, and the Lord I want to be more like him, I want to help people, and I want to be better and glorify God. I just think if everyone has that mentality the world would be a better place.”


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