Just over 100 years ago, and the nation was slowly recovering from World War I. To honor those who had given so much during the conflict and who needed care, a group of 20 war-weary American officers serving in France met to form what would become one of the most influential nonprofit groups in the United States: The American Legion.
In honor of Memorial Day, this Sunday and Monday, the Crawford and Paonia American Legion posts will honor all American veterans.
The Legion was chartered by Congress on March 15, 1919. Its purpose: "to promote the Four Pillars: Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation, National Security, Americanism, and Children & Youth."
Paonia also responded to the needs of veterans. On Aug. 16, 1920, the American Legion Wilson Post #97 received its charter on Aug. 16, 1920. Its 29 members were commanded by Capt. Dwight K. Foster.
Because the Legion does not allow the naming of posts after living persons, Paonia chose to honor Private Ralph Wilson, a member of Army Company A, 110th Infantry. Wilson was the first Paonia native to die in World War I. In 1946, the charter was reissued and the name "Head" was added to honor Paonia native Frank B. Head, who was serving on the Battleship Iowa when it sank in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
More than 100 years after its charter, nearly two million veterans belong to more than 12,000 posts throughout the country. Post 97 Adjutant Dave Hiney, a Vietnam veteran who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1968-70, was almost 60 when he joined the Legion. He's also a local chapter member of the American Legion Riders, which represents three Colorado legion districts. Riders raise money for charities, schools, veteran's homes, wounded servicemen and scholarships.
The American Legion is more than just a place to meet, explained Hiney. It's also "a place to share common experiences and have someone to relate to," said Hiney. "It's all about charity and the Four Pillars."
The Legion's members make that possible. The World War I members are long since gone, and they lost the last WWII veteran member a few years ago, said Hiney. In Paonia they'd like to have more younger veterans join the post. "I think the thing we struggle with is reaching these people," said Hiney
"We're always looking for new members," 11-year member and Post 97 historian, Lindee Cantrell.
This July, Cantrell will be installed as Post Commander. She will be the second female commander in Post history. Cantrell, who served in U.S. Air Force during the Persian Gulf War, relieves brother Lonnie Trujillo. A 14-year member of Post 97, Trujillo served 26 years in the Air Force. He was recently installed as Commander for District 11, which encompasses Paonia, Crawford, Cedaredge, Delta, Olathe, Montrose, Grand Junction and Telluride.
Paonia natives, both chose to return to the North Fork area after serving, but not many veterans do return, they said. With few coal mining and other lucrative jobs available, they go where the work is. While membership, currently about 130 members, is healthy, few veterans of more recent wars live in the valley. Due to a loss of coal mining and availability of lucrative jobs, "A lot of locals who serve in the military don't come back."
The Legion supports Hotchkiss and Paonia sports teams, distributes boxes of food monthly through its food bank, and each November distributes food boxes, including a turkey, ahead of thanksgiving.
The Legion hall and commercial kitchen are also for rent, and every Thursday the public can play Bingo starting at 6:50 p.m.
It takes members to do everything the Post does. Among their services, they hold an annual retirement ceremony for U.S. flags with faded colors, frayed edges, permanent stains or holes or tears that are beyond repair. Those who have a flag ready for retirement can drop it off at the Post after 3 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
The Legion also supports local youth in numerous ways, including awarding numerous scholarships annually to graduating Hotchkiss and Paonia high school seniors. Their application includes writing an essay "about what it means for them, as students, to be an American," said Cantrell.
Post 97 also participates in the annual National Oratorical Scholarship Program and sponsor high school juniors to attend Boys State and Girls State, a summer leadership program where form cities and participate in mock state legislature exercises. "The post doesn't receive applications every year," said Hiney. Not only is it a valuable experience, he said, "It looks good on a resume."
Those ineligible to join the Legion may be eligible to join the Sons of the American Legion, open to male descendents of veterans who served during World Wars I and II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf War and the War on Terrorism. The Auxiliary is open to female descendants of military veterans both living and deceased.
American Legion Riders membership is open to active Legion members, Sons of the American Legion and Legion Auxiliary members.
CRAWFORD POST 190
The Crawford American Legion Lynch-Cotten Post 190 was chartered by Congress in 1947. According to Larry Kontour, who served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in an ammunition battalion, Billy Lynch was a U.S. Navy veteran who died while serving on the USS Saratoga, and Bruce Cotten was a U.S. Army Infantryman who died in the Battle of Luzon, fought Jan. 9-15, 1945.
Like many American Legion posts, Post 190 has seen a decline in members, said Kontour. At one time they had 110 members, including World War I and World War II veterans. In 1996, said Kontour, the post had 40-45 members.
"That's dwindled down. Now we're at about 30." While they accepted five new members this year, all post-Vietnam War veterans, this year they lost Korean War veterans Robert Reed and John Sommer, both of whom will be honored this Sunday during the annual Memorial Day ceremony at the Crawford Cemetery.
For those wondering why Crawford recognizes Memorial Day on Sunday, Kontour explains that in the early days of Post 190, a lot of marriages between the local communities meant that some had to choose which ceremony to attend. "Crawford agreed to have their ceremony on Sunday to allow everyone to attend ceremonies in other towns."
The Veterans of Foreign War has provided services to veterans since 1899. In Hotchkiss, Black Canyon Post 9333 in Hotchkiss was established in 1947, according to Commander Michael Davis, who also serves as Commander of District 11. The Post meets the first Thursday of the month at the Hotchkiss-Crawford Museum. Meetings start at 7 p.m.
The Post currently has about 26 members, most of them veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars. "We would like to see membership grow," said Davis. But unlike generations before, "Kids seem to go into service, but they don't come home anymore. They seem to be going where the jobs are."
VFW membership is open to U.S. citizens or nationals serving in a branch of the Armed Forces in a war, campaign or expedition on foreign soil or in hostile waters, or who served and received an honorable or general discharge (www.vfw.org/eligibility). Those interested in joining can contact Quartermaster Dennis Marty at 970-872--5939.
Those who were assigned to at least one day of federal active duty service during eligibility periods set by the U.S. Government and receive an honorable discharge or discharge under honorable conditions or are currently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces are eligible for membership.
Just getting a full compliment for this Sunday's Memorial Day ceremony was difficult, he said.