When Gina Townsend’s father was killed during the Vietnam War, she was too young to understand or participate in his Medal of Honor ceremonies.
As an adult, Townsend began to research her father, Clifford Sims, who received his medal for his actions when he launched himself over a booby trap, sacrificing his life but saving his fellow soldiers.
“We kind of put it behind us because Vietnam was an unpopular war,” said Townsend, who was among the Gold Star family members at the National Poppy Day ceremony at American Legion Post 177 in Fairfax, Va. “In my 20s, I started doing some research, met some people who served with him and learned how many things had been done in his honor that we weren’t privy too. Ever since then, we have been going to various events and programs that honor his name and that is what led us here.”
Medal of Honor recipient and Navy SEAL Edward C. Byers Jr. served as the keynote speaker at the event. Byers reflected back to previous missions he was a part of in describing the importance of National Poppy Day.
“Out of tragedy something amazing and beautiful can flourish,” said Byers, who led hundreds of American Legion Riders to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for a candlelight vigil and laying poppies at the wall. “Today is one of those days. To stand here and celebrate National Poppy Day and reflect on why the poppy began to flourish across Europe at the end of World War I. Out of death and destruction grew a beautiful flower. This is why we should not mourn our fallen, but celebrate their lives. We come here today to remember and to reflect on those who gave all and the families they left behind. We will honor them by laying poppies at the wall.”
Among those joining Byers at the wall was Bob Sussan, chairman of The American Legion Riders National Advisory Committee.
“On Memorial Day and every day, it is important that we pause and reflect on those who have given their lives in service to our country,” said Sussan, a member of Post 177. “Being here and placing my poppy has personal significance. I served in Vietnam. I am sure others are just as moved as I am to honor someone who gave their life so that we can all be free.”
For six years, the post has hosted Riders, Gold Star families and other patriots from across the nation on Rolling Thunder weekend. On Friday night, they all solemnly commemorated the first Poppy Day candlelight vigil at the wall.
More than 100 Riders joined Gold Star family members in laying poppies at the wall to pay homage to the fallen servicemembers. Bystanders snapped a few cell phone pictures while others offered symbolic “thank yous” to the veterans for their service and the Gold Star family members for their sacrifice.
Each year in communities across the country, members of The American Legion, American Legion Auxiliary and Sons of the American Legion distribute poppies and collect donations. All donations received as part of National Poppy Day support veterans, active-duty military personnel, and their families with medical and financial needs.
Townsend is married to Col. Daniel Lee Townsend, who will be laying a wreath during Memorial Day weekend. “Our family will be honoring our current servicemembers while also remembering those veterans who came before us,” she said.
Poppy Day is a way for Townsend to educate others about her father and husband.
“If I had to help people understand what Memorial Day and Veterans Day are all about is that we remember those people who gave some and who gave all for the freedoms we have today,” said the sixth-grade science teacher. “I think we just need to be aware. My husband is active duty and so we are aware of what is going on internationally. But today’s generation is not aware of some of the history of some of the people who fought and died for our country. I would just encourage people to study our history and learn why we honor these people because we can do what we do now because of their sacrifices.”
The poppy and its history tracing back to World War I in France helps spread that message during this sacred weekend.
“This poppy means that I can celebrate openly and I can share with others,” Townsend said. “We have beautiful weather this weekend. All my friends are here celebrating. It’s just an honor to be a part of it because for so many years I was not a part of it. I think I understand a lot more and I like that my daughter, my husband, are part of something that honors so many.”
American Legion National Commander Charles E. Schmidt and Washington Office Executive Director Verna Jones, along with other Legion representatives, will meet with troops, veterans and their families overseas in Europe from May 30 to June 8 to help spread the word about VA benefits and resources available for the military community.
“It’s actually two different parties going together,” said Frederick Gessner, deputy director of the Legion’s National Security Division. “There’s the national commander and his group, and then a separate group with Jones (including our media relations director, Joe Plenzler, and National Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division Director Lou Celli, who will be conducting town halls).”
Part of the itinerary includes six VA town halls to assist U.S. military personnel and veterans, all scheduled for 0900 to 1200 hours each day, at the following locations:
• Tony Bass Auditorium, Building 1043 at Lucius D. Clay Kaserne in Wiesbaden, Germany (May 30)
• Armstrong Club Ballroom in Kaiserslautern, Germany (May 31)
• American Legion Post 1982 in the USAG Ansbach area of Germany (June 1)
• Patch Barracks Chapel in Stuttgart, Germany (June 1)
• Skyline Theater on Germany’s Spangdahlem Air Base (June 2)
• SHAPE Alliance Auditorium, Building 100, in Benelux, Belgium (June 7)
“The commander will stop in [to the town halls] and say a few words. Then he’s going to go onto the bases and have meetings with the commanders,” Gessner said. “He’s going to explain to them what the Legion can do for them, all the pre-benefits entitled to their troops. But also, he wants to understand what’s happening on their end … so that we can take that information back. That’s why we’re sending staff on this trip.”
Subject matter experts will also accompany Legion staff on the trip to speak about various VA benefits, including everything from the GI Bill to home loans and health care. “Jones is going to have a second mission where they’re going, to have VA town halls,” said Gessner. “That’s where they’re going to invite the military community in those areas - the veterans and the active duty, spouses and anyone who wants to come to have an opportunity to speak to the Legion. But it’s going to be more about what we can offer for them.”
Other events and stops on the itinerary for Schmidt and national staff include:
• visits to the American Legion Department of France;
• cemetery wreath-layings by The American Legion, American Legion Auxiliary, Sons of The American Legion and USAA;
• VA hospital briefings/Operation Comfort Warriors (OCW) presentations;
• interviews with military media organizations;
• a visit to the plaque commemorating the birthplace of The American Legion;
• an unveiling of a monument bearing the Legion’s emblem.
Names of fallen U.S. servicemembers were displayed on ruck sacks carried by veterans, active-duty servicemembers and military supporters as they marched through the neighborhoods and streets of Chicago to bring awareness to a growing epidemic. The 1,600 participants of the fourth annual Chicago Veterans: Ruck March on May 26 laced up their combat boots and walking shoes to raise awareness for PTSD and veteran suicide by walking 20 miles – one mile for every veteran that commits suicide daily.
“I’m walking for all my buddies who served and because it’s for a great cause – you have all these military people coming together to bring awareness for PTSD and veteran suicide,” said Detrall Dearbone, 5th District commander for The American Legion Department of Illinois and two-time ruck march participant. “It’s exciting, and we talk, we laugh, and I’ve met so many friends from this.”
Chicago Veterans: Ruck March participants, most of them post-9/11 veterans, gathered at Veterans Memorial Park in Glencoe, Ill., to begin their more than six-hour walk that traveled along Lake Michigan, by universities and through the busy streets of Chicago. As the walkers packed their 20-plus pound ruck sacks and gathered their American and military flags for marching, many of them adorned a poppy on their ruck sacks which was given to them by Illinois Legion leadership in support of the Legion's first National Poppy Day. The symbolic flower honors all who have served and sacrificed in the U.S. armed forces.
“We have a whole new generation now that will understand and respect the poppy … that’s a cool thing and nice that (Friday) happened to be poppy day,” said Past National Commander and Department Adjutant Marty Conatser.
Members from the department came to the event to show their support for today’s generation of veterans and to provide water, bananas, and information on Legion membership and programs to participants during their lunch break on the waterfront at Centennial Memorial Park in Evanston, Ill.
“We talk about the need to get new (Legion) members, especially younger veterans, and here is a great way for us to promote who The American Legion is and how we can help them,” said Gary Jenson, Department of Illinois assistant adjutant, who was there to speak with the veterans with Membership Director Chad Woodburn and service officer Wayne Macejak.
“We are here to show that we support them and we are here for them; that’s what’s really important,” Conatser said. “When you look around they are marching for each other and the camaraderie they are missing from being in the service. That’s why if you belong to a Legion post, you’re with people like you. These are the kind of events that (The American Legion) has to be a part of.”
The ruck march was organized by Chicago Veterans, a nonprofit that “empowers veterans to take control of their transition throughout life" by providing camaraderie, and education and employment assistance. Only 25 veterans participated in the first Chicago Veterans: Ruck March, so the significant growth in four years has made Legionnaire and Chicago Veterans President Kevin Barszcz “incredibly proud to see our veteran community come together to help end the veteran suicide epidemic. I am honored to have served with these incredible men and women who took an oath to service, both in and out of uniform,” said Barszcz, a member of Tattler Post 973 in Chicago. “The overall mission of this march is to hopefully save a life.”
The Chicago ruck march on Friday was the third one to participate in for Post 973 Vice Commander CJ Seestadt, who carried a list of names of fallen comrades, and a first for the post's Americanism officer and Illinois National Guardsman Patrick Murray.
“I personally know three soldiers that committed suicide, so I’m marching for those comrades,” Murray said. “The American Legion brings you another support network when you’re away from your military family so it’s important to be here for exposure, to let people know we are here for them.”
Showing support for America’s veterans and servicemembers was a statement shared by all about why they were walking, along with the event's mission being for a good cause – awareness for the veterans who have fallen on the home front, as well as the battlefield.
Three names of fallen heroes adorned the ruck sacks of Team Buddy Check, a group of 16 active and retired servicemembers and civilians led by Army Capt. Christina Rudolph.
“We do a buddy check every month with my unit where I reach out (on Facebook) and tag everybody and ask ‘Are you ok? How are you?’” Rudolph said. “So today we are walking to celebrate life because that’s what’s important – to let people know who battle issues that they are not alone.”
Legionnaire Lenny Jakubiak led his command of 21 Young Marines from Chicago on the walk, as it will be these veterans and servicemembers shoes that they will soon be following. So the walk was an opportunity to “give them a little insight about what to expect (in the military) and the hardships everyone has,” he said. This was Jakubiak’s second time to participate in the ruck march, and each time it’s been to “remember my fallen friends.”
After the ruck march concluded outside the Lincoln Park Zoo, veterans, servicemembers and military supporters received their dog tag medal, unloaded their heavy ruck sacks and embraced each other. Barszcz hoped that the mission of the ruck march to bring awareness to PTSD and veteran suicide was seen and heard throughout Chicago.
“If we can improve the livelihood of just one of our fellow veterans then this whole ruck march was worth it,” he said. “Our brothers and sisters need to know that they don’t have to struggle with PTSD alone – they have an army of veterans who are here for them.”
The American Legion's Washington Office held a National Poppy Day Legislative Reception on May 23 at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., to remember the fallen and support living servicemembers, as well as show gratitude for all the work government and congressional officials do to support the nation’s veterans.
More than 160 guests attended the reception, which featured complimentary appetizers, bourbon whiskey tasting, wine/beer selection and soft bluegrass music. Matthew Shuman, director of the Legion’s Legislative Division, and Executive Director Verna Jones gave brief remarks at the ceremony.
“This is truly a special occasion for us,” National Commander Charles E. Schmidt said. “The red poppy is a symbol of sacrifices made in service to our country. … In 1920, it became the official flower of American Legion families to memorialize the soldiers who fought and died through (World War I). Distributions of these poppies became a national program of The American Legion in 1924. This year, The American Legion asked members of Congress to recognize the importance of the poppy with the support of House Resolution (HR) 309.”
Thanks to the support of H.R. 309, a bill sponsored by Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.) that was referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform earlier this month, Schmidt said Friday, May 26, 2017, will mark the first-ever National Poppy Day in the United States, a tradition he is optimistic will carry on for years to come.
“Our members and posts are in every congressional district,” Shuman said. “The American Legion is involved in every community, votes in every election and has met with every one of your offices. I think it’s fair to say that The American Legion is part of the fabric of this great nation.”
American Legion National Commander Charles E. Schmidt expressed extreme disappointment in the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“The administration’s budget for the VA would effectively lower the earnings of our most vulnerable veterans by reducing or eliminating disability payments from veterans who are the most in need,” Schmidt said. “This is absolutely unacceptable to us.”
If approved by Congress, the president’s budget would stop higher disability payments to veterans once they become minimally eligible for Social Security. Veterans currently enrolled in the Individual Unemployability program, which is available to those who cannot work and receive the maximum disability compensation from VA, would see their benefits slashed by nearly two-thirds in some instances.
Another disturbing provision caps working age unemployability at age 62. Schmidt pointed out that many members of Congress continue to work past 70.
“This plan breaks faith with veterans,” Schmidt said. “Moreover, it’s an assault on TRICARE benefits, which were earned by veterans who spent decades of their lives serving and defending the Constitution of the United States. We are also alarmed by the cannibalization of services needed for the Choice program. It is a ‘stealth’ privatization attempt which The American Legion fully opposes. Choice should not be advanced to the detriment of cost of living increases for veterans.
"We hope all veterans, families and supporters of veterans call their elected officials and demand a well-functioning, properly-funded, transparent, and accountable Department of Veterans Affairs, and a presidential budget that fully supports veterans’ needs.”
On May 18, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) approved the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission’s design concept for a national World War I memorial in the nation’s capital. The presentation was a significant milestone in progress toward building the memorial, on a site authorized by Congress in 2014. CFA is one of the two federal agencies with responsibility for design approval of memorials in Washington, D.C., along with the National Capital Planning Commission.
Edwin L. Fountain, vice chair of the World War One Centennial Commission, said, "The concept for a national World War I memorial in Washington has been in the making for nine years. We are pleased the CFA endorsed our proposal to honor the service of 4.7 million Americans who served in World War I, and the sacrifice of the 116,516 who gave their lives. We look forward to working with the CFA, the public and other stakeholders as we continue to develop the final design."
The memorial will be located on Pennsylvania Avenue at Pershing Park, a 2-acre site one block from the White House. The park currently features a statue honoring Gen. John Pershing, the commander of American forces in World War I, and a pool of water set in a modernist landscape design by M. Paul Friedberg. The new memorial – developed by the design team of Joseph Weishaar, who won the design competition for the memorial project, along with John Gregg (GWWO Architecture), and Phoebe Lickwar (Forge Landscape) – will consist primarily of a 65-foot-long bronze bas-relief sculpture by acclaimed American sculptor Sabin Howard that will be located along the western edge of the water feature, along with additional commemorative elements in the park. Read more about the development of the design, and the memorial, here.
The U.S. World War I Centennial Commission is a federal agency chartered by Congress in 2013 to commemorate American participation in World War I, which it does through public outreach, education programs and commemorative events. The American Legion is a commemorative partner of the commission, on which Legion representative Jack Monahan of Connecticut sits.
June begins with several career events for veterans, servicemembers and military spouses:
June 2: San Diego Hiring Expo with the San Diego Padres. 9:30-11 a.m., personal branding workshop; 11 a.m.-2 p.m., hiring fair. All registered veterans and military spouses are eligible to receive up to two free tickets to attend that evening's game between the Padres and the Rockies. Petco Park, 100 Park Blvd., San Diego.
June 7-8: Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Transition Summit. Wednesday: 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Afterburner Military Transition Seminar (requires special registration); 9 a.m.-2 p.m., MOAA Military Spouse Symposium; 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., industry briefs; 5:30-7:30 p.m., networking reception. Thursday: 9 a.m.-noon, speaking program and workshops; 1-4 p.m., hiring fair. Events being held at multiple venues at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.; see the Legion's career link for details.
June 7: Fort Campbell Hiring Heroes Career Fair. 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Cole Park Commons, 1610 101st Airborne Division Road, Fort Campbell, Ky.
Follow the links for full details and keep tabs on upcoming career fairs at www.legion.org/careers/jobfairs.
When recent medical complications cost Korean War veteran Bob Young his leg, the bed-ridden veteran and his wife needed a ramp built to get in and out of their house easier. And as it has done multiple times this year, American Legion Riders Chapter 103 in Ashtabula, Ohio, stepped up.
A group of the Riders recently added a handicapped-accessible ramp to Young’s house, spending five and a half hours over the course of two days building it themselves. It was the fourth time the Riders have built such a ramp for a veteran this year.
Chapter 103 President Harry "Hairball" Godfrey said the Riders went to the Ashtabula County Community Action Agency, which assists families and individuals in the area, earlier this year and said they would be willing to help any veterans in need of assistance. After their first effort, word spread of their ability to help.
“We went over and we put a ramp up for a veteran’s wife – a veteran who had passed,” Godfrey. “We did that, it was on Facebook, and we started to get contacted from individuals that needed help. (This week) I actually got another request. Basically it’s all been word of mouth.”
The materials for the third ramp Chapter 103 built were donated by Home Depot, but the chapter footed the entire bill for Young’s. The money came from rides and fundraisers the Riders have conducted.
“We raise the money for supporting our neighborhood and veterans,” Godfrey said. “It was a $650 ramp. Now, if I would have hired a contractor it was a $3,000 job. And we get to talk to the people. When we can get out and actually do a project where we can meet the people we’re helping … (we) find it more satisfying.
“It’s easy to go out, have a couple runs, earn some money and write a check, and not really knowing how that check is going to be spent. This was different.”
And it made a difference.
"I told (the riders) they were a godsend,” Jeanette Lister, Young’s daughter, told the Star Beacon in Ashtabula. “I was so overwhelmed that they would be willing to do this for my dad. I didn't know if there's anything I can do to thank them for what they're doing."
Godfrey said that no thanks was necessary. “As Riders, we do what we do for the veterans we support,” he said. “It’s for the cause, not the applause."
Medal of Honor recipient and Navy SEAL Edward C. Byers Jr. will lead a poppy-themed motorcycle ride of hundreds of American Legion Riders on Friday, National Poppy Day.
Throughout the day, American Legion Family members will distribute poppies for the public to wear or display in honor of military service. The symbolism of the poppy dates back to World War I when the flowers flourished in fields amid the rubble in France and Belgium. The red flower came to symbolize fallen soldiers in the classic wartime poem, “In Flanders Fields,” written by Lt. Col. John McCrae, who served on the front lines.
After serving as keynote speaker for the first Poppy Day, Byers will lead the delegation as it leaves American Legion Post 177 in Fairfax, Va., to ride to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for a candlelight vigil on Friday night.
Byers received the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama during a White House ceremony in February 2016 for his efforts during a hostage rescue while deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2012. He is only the 11th living servicemember to be awarded the medal for bravery displayed in Afghanistan.