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Spirit of Service recipient volunteers, instructs firefighters

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Joe McPhail vividly recalls the heroic actions of first responders on Sept. 11, 2001, when he was a third-grader. That defining moment in American history sent McPhail on his own path to service with the Navy and as a volunteer firefighter with the Odenton (Md.) Volunteer Fire Co.

“It opened my eyes to what fire service really is,” McPhail recalled. “A lot of those guys weren't even on shift. They were coming in to help those in need. That's kind of what I wanted to do. I don't do it for recognition, for the reward. I do it to help those in need. I like helping people, and this is a great way to do it. You see some people's darkest days, and you're there, whether it’s noon or two o'clock in the morning, with barely any sleep. You're answering the call.”

McPhail, a petty officer second class, was selected as the Navy’s recipient of The American Legion’s Spirit of Service award in 2019. He was honored on stage at the 101st National Convention in Indianapolis in August.

A member of American Legion Post 40 in Glen Burnie, Md., McPhail expressed his appreciation for the award and for the organization. “If it wasn't for The American Legion, we would barely be able to function, honestly,” he said. “A lot of vets wouldn't be able to get the help they need.

“The military is a big brotherhood/sisterhood. I feel like the camaraderie in the fire service is a little bigger. If one of my buddies has a predicament where he can't get himself out, I have no problem going in to a burning building to save that person. Same thing, if I were in a predicament or I need extra resources, or I was low on air, or I was in a serious situation where I could potentially die, I know that there's a bunch of guys going to come get me, and they have no problem doing it. It's kind of a one for all, and all for one mentality. Everyone has each other's backs.”

Growing up in California and Colorado, McPhail credits his father and grandfather, a Vietnam veteran, with molding him.

“They've built me into the man I am,” he said. “Showed me what hard work and dedication does. I kind of grew up in a military lifestyle of be on time, be where you're supposed to be, and work hard. It pays off. My grandfather is my biggest inspiration. Grew up just like him. And my dad is one of the most hard working men I've ever met. I owe it all to him.”

It did not take long for McPhail to win over Mark Telfer, a retired Navy senior chief and assistant chief at Odenton Volunteer Fire Co.

“When Joe came in I was impressed that he was an instructor at the Naval Academy,” Telfer said. “He had been on aircraft carriers; hydraulic engineering is his passion. Most sailors are already firefighters to begin with. He took one class after another and always did excellent in the classes. He was really squared away; you don’t get a job at the Naval Academy if you are not squared away.”

The fire station handles about 6,000 calls a year, the vast majority of which are medical. Calls include quelling house fires to applying CPR to cutting people out of cars.

McPhail is “a cool character under pressure,” Telfer said, noting that volunteers commit to one 12-hour overnight shift each week at the station.

“We generally see people at their worst moments,” Telfer said. “His ability to comfort patients, or in the case of children, to comfort their parents, is great. He is a leader when I am not there. He runs the crew. He rides the seat and makes the calls. It is not an easy job but he has taken to it and embraced responsibilities. He is a quality guy. We’re fortunate to have a military guy like him who can take control of some of the younger volunteers.”

During a recent visit to the Odenton fire station, McPhail responded to an accident where a 13-year-old lost control of his bicycle going downhill and crashed into a parked vehicle. The boy’s prognosis was good but his father was concerned.

“Telling his dad that his kid's a trooper brightened his day a little bit,” said McPhail, who has been a volunteer firefighter for several years. “It's never good to see your son or daughter laying there bleeding. But taking a couple of seconds out of your day to say, ‘Hey, know that your son or daughter is a trooper, doing a great job,’ it brightens their day. A lot of us don't do it for the recognition, we just do it because it's fun.”

Later during the shift, volunteers turned their attention to that evening’s training session. McPhail served as a mentor to lesser-experienced volunteers, a role he excels in.

“Being a Navy Academy instructor kind of puts me in the spotlight of doing training on Thursday nights,” he said. “I generally have to pick out what we're going to do. Being an instructor, I know how to teach people in different ways, more hands on, or find out what motivates them better.”

Whether it’s a training drill, motor vehicle accident or house fire, Telfer has complete confidence in McPhail.

“As the smoke gets thicker, your blood pressure gets elevated and your anxiety rises and you can’t see as much but you have to get to the fire,” Telfer explained. “Once you get water on the fire, you get additional heat, which creates steam, I’ve never seen Joe say no. He’s always moving forward. It’s a credit to his training. He believes in his training and gear and passing that on to the newbies.”

For McPhail, his commitment to service is continuing.

“I don't see myself stopping being a volunteer firefighter any time soon,” he said. “It's a lot of fun, and it's never work. It's coming to the firehouse, hanging out with a great group of guys, and just building memories.”

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National WWI memorial gets final CFA nod

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The design for the new National World War I Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., received final approval on Thursday from the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA).

“This is a day that all who have worked hard to bring the National World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C., from concept to reality are very happy to see,” said Terry Hamby, chairman of the U.S World War One Centennial Commission. “This final approval takes us a giant step toward beginning the construction of this long-overdue tribute in our nation’s capital to the 4.7 million Americans who served in America’s armed forces in World War I.”

The memorial design now goes for final review by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC). With the CFA and NCPC design approvals in hand, the commission will coordinate with the National Park Service to finalize the construction permit so that work can begin this fall to restore Pershing Park and build the memorial.

The memorial is being built under the commission’s authority by the Doughboy Foundation. In 2015, The American Legion passed a resolution supporting the memorial's construction.

“This represents the 'end of the beginning' of fulfilling our sacred mission of honoring the doughboys, among whom were the founders of our beloved American Legion, with a fitting memorial in our nation’s capital," said John Monahan, who serves as The American Legion's representative on the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission. "Now we move on to the 'beginning of the end' -- the construction of the memorial, which, with the financial support of Legionnaires and other citizens, will be realized in the foreseeable future.”

Key congressional sponsors of the legislation authorizing the centennial commission were also pleased.

“It’s important that we have a tribute in our nation’s capital to the millions of men and women who served during World War I so that future generations may come to understand the sacrifices made on behalf of liberty,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. “This moment has been a long time coming, and I couldn’t be happier with the result.”

Former Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, hailed the approval decision. “All the doughboys and sailors of the Great War are gone, but now, after 100 years, America will trace their long patriotic journey through this magnificent memorial,” he said. “We shall remember them all, because the worst casualty of war is to be forgotten.”

The CFA's design approval is the latest successful milestone in a five-year campaign that began in 2014 when Congress authorized the commission to construct in Pershing Park “appropriate sculptural and other commemorative elements, including landscaping, to further honor the service of members of the United States Armed Forces in World War I.” After an international competition in 2015 that received more than 350 entries from around the world, the design of architect Joseph Weishaar featuring a monumental bronze by sculptor Sabin Howard was selected as the winner from among five finalists.

“As the lead designer for this project, I'm proud to say that after four years of tireless effort we have at last achieved final approval for the design of the memorial,” Weishaar said. “This is possibly the greatest hurdle this project has had to overcome, and it is a testament to the enduring resolve that the World War One Commission and its supporters have in seeing this project through to completion. It's been a long slough, but now it's time to build a memorial!”

Howard added, “I am delighted beyond words to pass through this gate and be able to sculpt a memorial that will honor and uplift so many people across this nation.”

The memorial’s new monumental bronze, titled “A Soldier’s Journey,” is being sculpted in clay at Howard’s New Jersey studio, and will be cast in metal in the UK before being installed in the memorial park along with the existing sculpture of Gen. John J. Pershing, who commanded the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. As well as the sculptural works in the park, the memorial will feature Extended Reality elements to enhance the visitor experience.

“One hundred years ago, 4.7 million American families sent their sons and daughters off to a war that would change the world,” said Dan Dayton, the commission's executive director. “Finally, with this memorial, they will be recognized in the nation’s capital.”

A new document of the approved memorial design is available for viewing and download. The 80-page publication provides a detailed look at the new memorial from broad overview down to quotes that will be inscribed, surface and stone materials, what kind of plants will grace the park areas, the lighting plan, interpretive elements, handicap access and more.

Individuals and posts can donate to the memorial's construction here.

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Program to Prevent Veterans Suicide Earns Bipartisan Support

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More than 6,000 veterans took their own lives each year between 2008 and 2017, and roughly 20 a day since 2014, according to statistics released Friday.

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Alabama Post 911 honors memory of fallen namesake

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American Legion Post 911 in Hoover, Ala., has experienced a tenfold membership increase since it renamed itself after Ryan Winslow, who was killed in Iraq.

“We were 911 before 9/11 when the Twin Towers were hit,” said Ginger Branson, commander of both Post 911 and Jefferson County for District 21. “Ryan Winslow was a Hoover boy. He is also memorialized at Hoover High School, where he was a student.”

Winslow enlisted in the Marine Corps in January 2005 and completed boot camp that May. On March 25, 2006, Winslow was deployed to Iraq with the 2nd Marine Division. He was killed on April 15 when his vehicle hit an IED.

Past commander Ron Bradstreet came up with the idea to rename the post after Winslow and relocate it to Hoover. That turned out to be a jump-start for the post, which used to meet in a trailer. At that time, the post struggled with membership.

“I figured that’s what we needed to do, honor a hometown hero,” said Bradstreet, who is now Department of Alabama commander. “So we re-flagged here. Then we went to work on membership. We attend all the events in the city and try to be part of the community.”

Bradstreet said that members draw inspiration from two special members of Post 911.

“When you are in a post meeting and his mom and dad are sitting there, you don’t have to ask yourself why you are doing this,” Bradstreet said. “You see them right there. Those Gold Star families don’t want their loved one to be forgotten. And Ryan will never be forgotten here.”

As the post grew in size it eventually received permission to use a room at Hoover Tactical Firearms to hold meetings and other small-scale events.

“The change re-ignited passions among membership,” Branson explained. “What happened since then is that we went from 40 members to over 400 members.”

And with that renewed passion, Post 911 members participate in various Hoover community events throughout the year, including a breast cancer awareness program at the local VA clinic and an upcoming 5K run with Team Red White and Blue.

“It doesn’t hurt for The American Legion to have a face in the community,” Branson said. “Everybody needs to know about The American Legion.”

Chase Hersey, a post-9/11 veteran who served as a Navy corpsman, helps promote that message. He was commander at Post 107 but transferred earlier this year to Post 911 to help rev up the Riders program and their efforts to engage younger veterans.

Hersey credits Branson and Bradstreet with mentoring him. Now, he says, it’s his time to give back and provide leadership at their post. “Come see what we’re all about,” he describes his pitch to a younger veteran. “Come to a meeting. It’s not like the old days. Just come out, give it a shot and try.”

Post 911 not only embraces younger veterans, he says, it encourages the implementation of new ideas.

“That’s one of the reasons why I decided to come over to this post,” Hersey said. “They are open to new suggestions. They are open to new ways. They want to grow and be involved in the community. They want to get younger veterans involved.”

Chrystal Jones knows full well about the support that members of Post 911 can provide to younger veterans.

Jones is now a member of Post 338 in Brighton, about 20 miles away. One year when she was adjutant at Post 911, she was even further away from Hoover.

“Post members here are really dear; they really kept me grounded when I was over in Afghanistan,” said Jones, who served as post adjutant during her 2009-2010 deployment with the Army reserves. “I went through quite a lot. When events would happen, Ron Bradstreet would give me that reassurance I needed. We went through a lot of tragedies, losing one or two soldiers a day. It was some rocky times.”

Jones was stationed at Bagram but traveled throughout the country. “I would check on the soldiers to make sure they had everything they needed and get them things they did need. It was a good experience.”

Now she continues her service with the Legion on U.S. soil.

“The American Legion cares about veterans,” Jones says. “There are a lot of organizations that say they do. But in my time in The American Legion, I have literally seen them come to aid in times of disasters, come to the aid to someone who lost everything in a fire or lost stuff in a tornado. Or set up facilities for those who are going through post-traumatic stress disorder. They just do so much more than most people are aware of like scholarships. I love the way that they are a family organization.”

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Legionnaire and World War II 'Hero of Cologne' awarded Bronze Star

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Nearly 75 years after his heroic actions destroyed a German Panther tank, World War II U.S. Army gunner Cpl. Clarence Smoyer was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with “V” device in a Sept. 18 ceremony commemorating his bravery during the Battle of Cologne.

The ceremony, held at the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., was a surprise for Smoyer who is a 58-year member of The American Legion from Pennsylvania. The day was arranged by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn., and author Adam Makos, whose book “Spearhead” details the actions of Smoyer and his tank – named “Eagle” – during the Battle of Cologne. Makos brought Smoyer to Washington under the pretense of a book signing at the Pentagon.

"(The Bronze Star) is well overdue, and he should have received it a long time ago," said Sgt. Joe Caserta, who served with Smoyer during the war. The men remain close friends.

"I will tell you,” said Toomey, “that in my travels across Pennsylvania and across this great country and sometimes in meetings here, we hear stories of these heroes that all too often are forgotten (about) the brave men and women who’ve worn the uniform of this country. But these stories, and specifically Clarence’s ... is a reminder of why Congress and all Americans owe a huge debt of gratitude to those very men and women.”

It was March 6, 1945, when Smoyer heard the words of Lt. Bill Stillman come over the radio: “Gentlemen, I give you Cologne. Let’s knock the hell out of them.” Smoyer and the tank crew obliged.

The Eagle’s crew rode into the German city of Cologne – one of the last strongholds of the Third Reich. The city had mostly been evacuated, but Nazi forces guarded the Cologne Cathedral. A German Panther tank destroyed two American tanks and killed several of the soldiers inside. Smoyer and the Eagle’s crew moved forward, finding themselves staring down the German tank. Smoyer fired three shots in quick succession and the Panther went up in flames.

“Clarence sat back from the periscope, still stunned by the previous 40 or 50 seconds of furious action. Did that really happen?” Makos wrote in his book. “After some time, Clarence broke the silence in the tank. ‘That was close,’ he said.”

The fierce battle was caught on camera and shows the German Panther burning in the shadows of Cologne’s Cathedral. The footage earned Smoyer the sobriquet “The Hero of Cologne.”

Smoyer was supposed to be awarded the medal in 1945, but in the days that followed the battle, fighting in the city slowed. Smoyer was approached by German children who came to him asking for bubblegum. "I tried to explain to them I don't have any," Smoyer said. "I pulled my pockets out to show them they were empty. MP's pulled up beside me. You're not supposed to be talking to the Germans.” Smoyer was cited for “fraternizing with the enemy” and his award was withdrawn. Toomey and Makos helped make things right, and the Army reviewed the case to reverse the injustice.

Two words escaped Smoyer’s lips as he climbed out of his vehicle and walked toward the ceremony. “Bronze Star.” This was a day he never thought would come.

“I wear this in memory of all the young people who have lost their lives in battle,” Smoyer said.

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