Still Serving: American Legion offers veterans friendships and ways to help others

By Michael Wetzel | Living 50 Plus

More than 300 military veterans in Morgan County find fellowship, comfort and a sense of belonging when they visit the American Legion Post 15 on U.S. 31 South in Decatur. But most of all, the membership, with an average age in the mid-60s, concentrates on community service, post members say.

“Anytime you walk into a new place and you don’t know anybody, you will be a little bit on the edge, of course. But if a veteran comes into an American Legion, they know they are talking to other veterans. It makes it a whole lot easier to come in and strike up a conversation and start making friends right away,” said U.S. Air Force retiree Bill Cole, who serves as junior vice commander with the post.

“Camaraderie amongst veterans is important. In the American Legion, you have no military grade. It doesn’t matter if you were a lieutenant colonel or an E5 in the military. Here we are all on the same level. Most everybody who comes here is very willing to help serve. Most people join the American Legion to continue to serve. We’re serving veterans, serving veterans’ families and serving the community.”

Cole, 81, also leads the honor guard, which performs at funerals for military veterans across north Alabama.

Marsha King, Post 15 auxiliary president, said about 75% of the membership is over 50 years old and all are proud of their service.

“Mental health wise, it is very important to be involved in something outside of the home,” she said. “Our members come here to a very trusted environment. Everyone here has a military background, and they can come here and feel safe. When you come here there is a brotherhood, a sisterhood. We’re a family with a goal to help our members. It is a great way to get our veterans involved in community service. Our motto is ‘service, not self.’”

Bingo, dances and dinner banquets are frequent activities, which provide members ways to stay involved, post members say. Bingo every Saturday at 6 p.m. does more than send lucky winners home with $3,500 in cash, it generates revenue for college scholarships, funeral honors and money to charities.

Bingo chairman and past post commander Harald Belletete, 77, said the post is required by city ordinance to give away at least 51% of the net proceeds from the bingo games.

The U.S. Army retiree said about 150 people regularly attend the Saturday night games.

Helping youth and veterans

Post Commander and retired U.S. Army Capt. Joseph Woodbury said JROTC and the American Legion’s Boys and Girls State programs are among the benefactors.

“We are sponsoring 29 boys and girls for Boys and Girls State this summer in Troy,” he said. “They’ll spend a week creating a government and learn how it works.”

He said the members also honor 18 outstanding citizens and public servants in Morgan County at an annual banquet.

“American Legion members provide care and support for fellow veterans, too,” said Woodbury, 56. “We recently built a handicapped ramp at no cost to the veteran at the veteran’s home.”

He said the post members occasionally will visit homebound veterans. “It gives them an opportunity to talk with a friendly face and share stories with other veterans,” Woodbury said.

Instant bond

Gold star mother and post facility manager Violet Kaylor, 60, said she never served in the military but lost her son, John-Erik Loney, when he was killed in Iraq in 2006. She said she became interested in joining the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans and Veterans of Foreign Wars groups after his death. Loney graduated from Danville High in 2003 before he joined the U.S. Army a year later, she said.

She added the veterans’ spouses, motorcycle-riding veterans, and families of veterans also have branches of the American Legion they can participate in.

“The fellowship with these groups is special,” she said. “I see it when members come in and there is that instant bond. They understand what each of them have been through. We take pride in the community service our veterans provide.”

Belletete, born in Stuttgart, Germany, said the activities keep the veterans busy plus some helped renovate the 10,000-square-foot facility in 2018 and 2019.

“We’ve got so many skilled people who offered their talents in this renovation,” he said. “It took about five months. … Members come in and are very respectful to each other and that respect turns into friendships. The friendships you build here are friendships for life.”