KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) is proud to celebrate our nation’s African American service members and veterans throughout the month of February, Black History Month. “The bravery and sacrifice of our African American veterans, service members and their families has been integral to our nation’s success,” said Hal Roesch, VFW national commander. “From fighting on the front lines for the freedom of our nation, to celebrating the first Black Secretary of Defense confirmed only weeks ago, the contributions they have made and continue to make have helped to ensure our military remains the most exceptional force in the free world.” Throughout the month of February, the VFW will spotlight the service stories of African American veterans and their invaluable contributions to our military and society.  
(VFW)  In honoring the memory of a local Army veteran, a VFW Post in San Antonio established a scholarship fund that surpassed more than $75,000 in 2020.  In the 10 years since creating a scholarship fund in memory of Jeremiah J. Geffre, VFW Post 1533 and its members have awarded 69 college scholarships ranging between $1,000 and $1,500 to local JROTC high school students.   Jeremiah J. Geffre’s father, John, left, and Post 1533 trustee and scholarship chairperson Ruben Villafranca, right, stand alongside Judson High School AFROTC members and scholarship recipients Taylor Andrews and Nicole Murillo on April 24, 2018, at the Judson High School JRROTC awards in Converse, Texas, about 15 miles from San Antonio. “We have always valued education at Post 1533, so preserving the memory of a young man like Geffre through a scholarship named in his honor was very fitting,” said Ruben Villafranca, a VFW Post 1533 trustee and scholarship chairperson.    The decision to honor Geffre was voted upon by Post members in 2011, five years after Geffre lost his battle to brain cancer diagnosed while deployed to Kuwait between 2004 and 2005 with the Army’s 328th Human Resources Company. Post 1533 began with two scholarships worth $1,000 each in 2011, but has since allocated funds to donate between six and seven scholarships a year. In 2019 and 2020 alone, the Post awarded 13 yearly scholarships worth $1,500 each. Each year, Post 1533 members raise the funds through barbecue and Bingo nights at the Post, as well as receiving private donations from local businesses and residents such as the Geffres. The program’s success has led to testimonials from former awardees, whose presence at yearly scholarship ceremonies alongside Post 1533 members encourage future participants to propel their own goals forward.  “For Geffre’s parents and the Post, the scholarship keeps a veteran’s memory alive. But it also helps our future leaders get their education,” Villafranca said. “It’s a blessing hearing past awardees come and talk to the youth and speak on how the scholarship has helped them achieve their career goals.” Despite not having the means to raise money for the 2021 campaign as a consequence of COVID-19, Villafranca and other Post 1533 trustees expect the program to continue in 2022. “COVID difficulties had us decide to forgo this year’s scholarships, but it’s not the end,” Villafranca added. “We are very proud of the program and hope to continue it for many years to come.”
(VAntage Point) Veterans who receive federal benefits should sign up for direct deposit to receive their benefit payments electronically. Direct deposit is easier, safer and more reliable than prepaid debit cards or paper checks that often get lost or delayed in the mail. Direct deposit also allows beneficiaries to receive their benefits automatically, without leaving their home, which helps protect their health and safety by limiting unnecessary contact with others. More than 98% of SSA and Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) beneficiaries already receive their monthly benefit payment on time, every time, because they’ve enrolled in direct deposit. To provide Veterans and service members with a safe, reliable and inexpensive way to receive their VA monetary benefits, VA launched the Veterans Benefits Banking Program (VBBP). Through VBBP, Veterans can access federally-insured banking institutions that specialize in services for military personnel, Veterans and their families. Participating VBBP banks offer Veterans and service members low- to no-cost checking accounts into which benefit payments can be direct deposited, as well as other financial services. Since the program’s launch in December 2019, more than 30,000 Veterans have signed up for VBBP. Veterans can learn more about VBBP online, sign up by calling VA at 1-800-827-1000, or visit a participating bank or credit union and request to participate in the program. Partnership To streamline the process for disbursing funds to millions of Americans and ensuring timely receipt of benefit payments, VA and the Social Security Administration are joining forces with the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Bureau of the Fiscal Service. The agencies have teamed up to share ideas and explore new opportunities for collaboration that will improve the federal benefit experience. VA and the Social Security Administration are connected by their shared commitment to serve the American public and to issue payments for federal benefits. From a retiree who receives Social Security benefits to a Veteran who receives disability compensation, monthly benefit payments are essential for millions of Americans. These payments provide beneficiaries with critical support needed to pay rent, buy food, purchase medicine, pay for school, and more. It is crucial that these payments are delivered on time, every time. Joanne Gasparini is the associate commissioner of the Office of Financial Policy and Operations at the Social Security Administration. Charles S. Tapp II is the chief financial officer at VBA. Ronda Kent is the assistant commissioner for Payment Management and Chief Disbursing Officer at the Department of the Treasury’s Bureau of the Fiscal Service.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) released the names of several key Biden administration political appointees joining the department. Paula Molloy, PhD, assistant secretary, Human Resources and Administration/ Operations, Security and Preparedness: Paula Molloy rejoins VA after serving as chief administrative officer for the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), an independent federal agency since 2017. Molloy served as VA assistant deputy undersecretary for Health for Workforce Services, leading the strategic integration of initiatives to support human capital systems for more than 320,000 Veteran Health Administration employees and over 120,000 health professions trainees.  Kayla M. Williams, assistant secretary, Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs: Prior to rejoining VA, Kayla Williams most recently was senior fellow and director of the Military, Veterans and Society Program at Center for a New American Security. Williams previously served as director of the Center for Women Veterans at VA, where she was primary adviser to the secretary on department policies, programs and legislation affecting women Veterans. Williams also served eight years at RAND researching service member and Veteran health needs and benefits, international security and intelligence policy.  Chris Díaz, acting chief of staff, White House Liaison, Office of the Secretary: Chris Diaz is founder and former executive director of the Veteran-led non-profit, Action Tank, whose mission tackles the toughest challenges facing the community. He has sat on numerous boards in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, helping to shape the future of the region. For leading these efforts, Diaz has received national recognition earning the SXSW Community Service Award, Aspen Ideas Fellowship and prestigious Pat Tillman scholarship. Diaz is an entrepreneur whose company, Performa, supported clients focused on implementing positive lifestyle changes, increasing their capacity for self-awareness and actualization.  Meg Kabat, senior advisor, Families, Caregivers and Survivors, Office of the Secretary: Meg Kabat is a licensed clinical social worker with more than 25 years supporting America’s service members, Veterans and their families. Early in her civilian career with the U.S. Navy, Kabat served as a case manager. From 2011-2019, Kabat served in leadership roles with the VA Caregiver Support Program. Most recently, Kabat has been a senior director at Atlas Research, supporting the Department of Defense (DOD) Sexual Assault Prevention Office, as well as facilitating the COVID-19 Nursing Home Commission in collaboration with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. Kabat is the recipient of multiple awards including a Special Recognition Award from Disabled American Veterans, VA Exemplary Service Award and VA Exceptional Service Award.  Raymond C. Kelley, liaison, Veteran Service Organization, Office of the Secretary: Prior to his appointment to VA, Raymond Kelley was the majority staff director for the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. In this role, Kelley worked as the primary day-to-day Veterans’ portfolio legislative and political advisor to Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and oversaw the daily operations of the Committee staff. Prior to his work on the Committee, Kelley was director of National Legislative Service for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) where he was responsible for the planning, coordination and implementation of VFW’s priorities that were presented to Congress, federal departments and agencies, and other organizations. Kelley also served as the national legislative director for AMVETS before his work with the VFW.   Ya Wei (Jenny) Wang - director of Mission Operations, Office of the Secretary: Jenny Wang recently served on the Biden-Harris transition team. She has worked in various foreign policy and national security positions throughout the government. From 2013-2017, Wang was special assistant and advisor to the White House chief of staff, where she managed executive operations. Wang held different positions on the National Security Council, to include special assistant in the Counterterrorism Directorate.  Tahmika Ruth Jackson, special counsel, Office of General Counsel: Prior to her appointment to VA, Tahmika Jackson served as National Security Agency (NSA) senior representative to the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Virginia. Jackson also served as a counterterrorism senior leader in the Counterterrorism Operations Cell of the National Security Operations Center, acting as NSA’s primary coordinator for real-time counterterrorism situational awareness and crisis response. Jackson formerly represented the DOD as an attorney in the NSA Office of the General Counsel working national security and intelligence law issues.  Terrence L. Hayes, press secretary, Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs: Prior to assuming the role of VA press secretary, Terrence Hayes served as national director of Communication and Public Affairs for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He has worked in critical executive-level public affairs positions throughout his 24-year civilian and military career. As a public affairs professional in VA’s Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs Hayes was responsible for answering national, regional and local media queries on behalf of then Secretaries David Shulkin and Robert Wilkie. He also served as public affairs adviser and spokesperson to the Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from November 2011 to January 2016.  John Santos, special assistant, Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs: John Santos previously served as Asian American and Pacific Islander outreach director at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) where he led the DNC’s efforts to mobilize Asian American and Pacific Islander voters through close partnership with the Biden-Harris campaign and community leaders across the country. In addition to his organizing work, Santos has extensive experience in public affairs and communications having served as Western Region press secretary at the DNC and as deputy spokesperson for the international anti-ISIS coalition in Baghdad, Iraq.  More announcements are to come. 
(The American Legion) By Alan W. Dowd As a new commander in chief prepares to take the reins, the world can expect both change and continuity in the overlapping areas of foreign policy and national security – perhaps more continuity than many observers are predicting. Unlike the president he served under and the president he succeeds, President-elect Joe Biden, owing to his many years of public service, has a lengthy track record on defense and diplomacy. That record and the foreign-policy vision statement he recently shared offer clues as to what lies ahead. ORDER Biden notes that since the end of World War II the United States has “played a leading role in writing the rules, forging the agreements, and animating the institutions that guide relations among nations, and advance collective security and prosperity.” If America fails to play that role, he warns, “(e)ither someone else will take the United States’ place, but not in a way that advances our interests and values, or no one will, and chaos will ensue. Either way, that’s not good for America.” This is Biden’s way of describing the liberal international order Americans began building from the rubble of World War II – an international system based on democratic governance, broadly accepted norms of behavior, liberal (freedom-oriented) political and economic institutions, and stable nation-states capable of promoting good order within and around their borders. This liberal international order has served U.S. interests, but it doesn’t run on auto-pilot. It depends on responsible powers deterring aggressive states and serving as a last line of defense against the enemies of civilization. Toward that end, Biden vows this year to “host a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world,” “forge a common agenda” and “strengthen the coalition of democracies that stand with us around the world.” This plan to convene a Summit for Democracy suggests both a renewed commitment to America’s role defending the liberal international order and perhaps a recognition that liberal democracies shouldn’t expect much help from the United Nations, which is crippled by dictatorships. Perhaps the Summit for Democracy will even open the way toward creation of an Alliance of Democracies that could bypass the mischief and roadblocks created by the U.N. Security Council’s despotic members. It’s an idea that has been gaining bipartisan support at home and high-profile support abroad for more than a decade. ALLIES Biden has signaled his plans to return to the Iran nuclear deal, which key allies Britain, France and Germany support. He wants to rejoin the Paris climate agreement. And he wants to work more closely with allies in Europe and Asia. NATO tops that list for Biden. “NATO is at the very heart of the United States’ national security,” Biden has said, describing the transatlantic alliance as “the single most important military alliance in the history of the world.” Although President Donald Trump’s comments about NATO were often critical, he wasn’t the first U.S. official to criticize the contributions of certain allies. Dating at least to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Washington has been increasingly open and blunt about its frustrations with NATO. Steered by the early spadework of Defense Secretary James Mattis, the Trump administration tripled the Obama administration’s funding levels for the European Deterrence Initiative; reactivated the Navy’s Second Fleet (which was deactivated in 2011, after defending the Atlantic and supporting NATO throughout the Cold War); reestablished the Army’s Germany-based V Corps (which was deactivated in 2012, after decades defending Europe); authorized construction of and/or upgrades to bases in Iceland, Luxembourg, Norway, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Latvia and Estonia; agreed to add Montenegro and North Macedonia to the NATO fold; and laid the groundwork for the permanent basing of 5,500 troops in Poland. All of this came in response to Russia’s actions. Vladimir Putin doubled military spending between 2005 and 2018; has added 600 new warplanes, 840 helicopters and 2,300 drones to his arsenal; and produced a number of new offensive weapon systems. Putin’s Russia has invaded and dismembered NATO aspirants Georgia and Ukraine, annexed parts of Ukraine, occupied parts of Georgia, gained a strategic foothold in the Mediterranean (courtesy of Syria), conducted provocative tests of antisatellite systems, waged a crippling cyberwar against NATO member Estonia, violated the INF Treaty, armed Taliban forces waging war against NATO personnel operating under U.N. mandate, and unleashed his intelligence agencies to conduct strategic-influence operations against the U.S. and allied countries. Whether spurred by Moscow’s actions or Washington’s criticisms – probably a little of both – NATO nations have finally gotten serious about the common defense: In 2015, only three NATO members met the alliance-wide goal of investing 2 percent of GDP in defense. Today, 10 have reached the 2-percent mark. By 2024, 20 will meet that standard. NATO’s European and Canadian members have added 131,000 troops to their ranks and $130 billion in fresh defense spending since 2016. These tools and resources – the refurbished bases, the resurrected Navy and Army units, the increased investment in deterrent assets, the renewed commitment within NATO to military spending – will help the Biden team deter Putin. CHINA Biden vows to “get tough with China.” Given what has transpired the past four years, “stay tough” may be more accurate. Spurred by Beijing’s criminal mishandling of COVID-19, the Trump administration dealt with China firmly – criticizing Beijing’s irresponsible actions throughout the pandemic, increasing the number and tempo of freedom-of-navigation deployments in the Indo-Pacific, elevating the Taiwan relationship through high-level visits and increased arms shipments, beefing up defense commitments in the Indo-Pacific, and building new security and economic partnerships. For example, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his team launched a free-world 5G partnership. This effort positions allied nations to pool technological resources, build on shared values, and harness interoperability to forge a Clean 5G Network. Likewise, the State Department’s nascent Economic Prosperity Network (EPN) has brought together partners committed to “respect for rule of law, respect for property of all kinds, respect for sovereignty of nations and respect for basic human rights” to build uncompromised supply chains. The Quad security dialogue has been revived in recent years, as the United States, Australia, India and Japan widen and deepen cooperation on military exercises, training, basing, procurement, intelligence-sharing, supply-chain resilience, and pandemic recovery. And outgoing Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite has laid the groundwork for a reactivated 1st Fleet, which will relieve pressure on the 7th Fleet and secure a large swath of the Indian Ocean. Again, these tools and resources will help Biden and his team navigate what increasingly looks like Cold War 2.0. Following the trail blazed with the Quad, EPN and Clean 5G Path, Biden plans to harness “the economic might of democracies” to meet the China challenge. Biden recognizes that America needs all the help it can get confronting the Beijing behemoth, arguing that we must “build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations.” China, it pays to recall, is a country of 1.3 billion. Its GDP is $14.1 trillion. Its annual military expenditure is $260 billion (mushrooming 572 percent since 1999). It has a 2-million-man military, a 350-ship navy, and an intense focus on dominating its neighborhood. Although America boasts a $21.4-trillion GDP and $738-billion defense budget, it has a billion fewer people than China, just 1.3 million active-duty troops, a 296-ship Navy, a defense budget that’s plateauing, and security commitments that are diffused and dispersed. However, the U.S. combined with democratic partners in the Americas, Europe, Asia and the Indo-Pacific enfolds some 2.8 billion people, 71 percent of global GDP, 65 percent of global defense spending, more than 7 million men under arms, and what former JCS Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen called “a thousand-ship navy.” DEFENSE Still, it stands to reason that the United States – the wealthiest, largest, most powerful, most technologically advanced nation in the free world – will need to provide much of the muscle in this multinational effort to deter and contain Beijing. Underscoring this reality, Biden wants to move “60 percent of our sea power to that area of the world, to let the Chinese understand that they're not going to go any further.” That makes sense. But that and other aspects of Cold War 2.0 will require ongoing investments in defense. Biden vows to make “the investments necessary to equip our troops for the challenges of this century.” The past four years have seen Washington dig out of the deep hole created by sequestration, giving Biden a solid base for meeting this century’s security challenges. But with COVID-19 recovery costs soaring, one wonders if the Biden administration will be able to sustain needed investments in defense. “It took us years to get into this situation,” as Mattis warned during his stint leading the Pentagon. “It will require years of stable budgets and increased funding to get out of it.” INTERVENTION “It is past time to end the forever wars, which have cost the United States untold blood and treasure,” Biden says of the war on terror and its consequent nation-building missions. “We should bring the vast majority of our troops home from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East and narrowly define our mission as defeating al-Qaida and the Islamic State.” On a related note, Biden has made clear that he will use military force “only to defend our vital interests.” This is very similar to what his predecessor said about the post-9/11 campaign of campaigns: “Great nations do not fight endless wars,” Trump argued. “My rules of engagement are pretty simple: If we are going to intervene in a conflict, it had better pose a direct threat to our interest.” The record shows that in the past four years, Washington dialed back the tempo and number of military interventions that had characterized the previous quarter-century – and cut troop levels in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “The argument that we just have to do something when bad people do bad things isn’t good enough,” Biden says. “It’s not a good enough reason for American intervention and to put our sons’ and daughters’ lives on the line.” He speaks quite literally in this regard. As a military dad, Biden has seen and felt the costs of military intervention in ways most presidents never do. That perspective will surely shape his approach to foreign policy and national security.
(Veterans of Foreign Wars) January 14, 2021   Continuing to serve isn’t always easy, yet it’s what Myers feels compelled to do “I have always believed that we were put on earth to serve and share our blessings with others,” said David Myers, a Life member of VFW Post 3031 in Rogers, Arkansas. Myers put that into action by serving in the U.S. Air Force for 20 years. Even while answering the call of duty during Operation Desert Storm and as part of the Space Shuttle Support Team, he wanted to help anywhere he could. He volunteered at the post office every Christmas he was overseas to ensure mail and packages were out. He found ways to be involved with his three daughters’ school, softball team and scouting. In 1995, Myers’ efforts were honored with the Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal. But everything came to a sudden stop when he retired from the Air Force, and he realized he faced an uphill battle to continue working and serving others. Finding a job proved more difficult than anticipated, so Myers went back to school and earned a degree in business administration and management information systems. He discovered a second career with Wal-Mart headquarters in Arkansas, and eventually landed his current job as data systems manager for the Supreme Court of Oklahoma. With each new location and skillset, Myers found more opportunities to help his community. Since 2003, he has served in the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) and was deputy commander for cadet programs for six years. In Arkansas, he served with Wreaths Across America at Fayetteville National Cemetery. Now in Oklahoma City, Myers organizes veteran activities through his church and teaches history and genealogy at a health and wellness center.  “I enjoy working with kids who are CAP cadets because I am constantly impressed with their innate abilities and unceasing potential to achieve,” Myers said. “Seeing these young people grow in strength and confidence each year is amazing. The Wreaths Across America program allowed me to include them in an event that honors our veterans past and present. Teaching seniors how to research their family’s past, and how our personal timelines and historical timelines intersect, is wonderful when I see them light up as they find a connection.” Myers is proud of his work mentoring CAP cadets. Several have gone on to serve in the military and email him to stay in touch or ask questions about leadership and service. His time teaching history and genealogy became more meaningful during the pandemic as it allowed him to be there for a fellow veteran. “During 2020, with COVID-19 being front and center, all classes at the wellness center were cancelled until July. After that, it’s been a struggle to have anyone come,” said Myers. “But I had this one gentleman, a retired Marine who is disabled, and he’s been there every single class. Right now, it’s more like we just have conversations. He comes in each week with questions and we go through them one on one.” Continuing to serve isn’t always easy, yet it’s what Myers feels compelled to do. He wants more people, particularly veterans, to know they can keep moving forward in life and making a positive difference.  “I am classified as 100 percent disabled and I suppose I could have used that as a reason for not staying involved, but that has never been my style,” Myers said. “If I had something to impart to other veterans it would be this: We all have it within us to be successful and reach our goals by removing fear from the equation, because fear will always tell you that you can’t. But you can do anything with faith, hope and great support from the family and those around you.”
The American Legion American Legion National Commander James W. "Bill" Oxford called on President Trump to order the lowering of U.S. flags at the White House and all federal buildings in honor of a Capitol police officer who was killed in Wednesday’s attack on the U.S. Capitol. “Brian Sicknick was an Iraq war veteran and an American hero,” American Legion National Commander James W. “Bill” Oxford said. “I was pleased to learn that the U.S. Capitol lowered the flag above it on Friday. The governor of New Jersey also ordered the lowering of flags in Mr. Sicknick’s home state. Mr. President, do the right thing and lower the flags that are under your authority to half-staff in honor of this hero who gave his life defending the house of the people.”
(VAntage Point) On Jan. 1, 2020, the Blue Water Navy (BWN) Vietnam Veterans Act went into law, supporting Veterans who may be eligible for benefits based on presumption of herbicide exposure. One year later, VA reflects on its progress. Granting benefits As of Nov. 30, 2020, VA has processed 39,061 of 75,205 claims received. Of those, 27,366 were granted – awarding more than $724 million in retroactive benefits. The most common granted claims included medical conditions diabetes, malignant growth of the lung, coronary bypass surgery, malignant growths of genitourinary system and coronary artery disease. In addition, the law provides benefits for children born with certain health conditions whose parent was a Veteran with verified herbicide exposure while serving in Thailand.  Eligibility The law affects Veterans who served on vessels operating not more than 12 nautical miles seaward from the demarcation line of the waters of Vietnam and Cambodia, as defined in Public Law 116-23 . Veterans, their dependents, and survivors who meet this criteria can apply for these approved benefits. Veterans – and survivors of deceased Veterans – who served in or near the Korean Demilitarized Zone from Sept. 1, 1967, to Aug. 31, 1971, can apply for benefits. Increasing accessibility To help implement the law, VA collaborated with the National Archives and Records Administration to digitize all Navy and Coast Guard deck logs for ships with known Vietnam service. Digitization of the Navy deck logs was completed in December 2019; Coast Guard deck logs were completed in September 2020. As part of the agreement, VA provided digital images of the deck logs to NARA to make them digitally available in the National Archives Catalog. Veterans may contact if the deck log they are seeking is not available in the National Archives Catalog. Learn more about Agent Orange exposure and VA disability compensation or call 800-827-1000 for more information.
(American Legion) On Dec. 20, 2019, the U.S. Space Force – the newest branch of the U.S. Armed Forces – was officially instituted with the signing of legislation by President Donald Trump. On the occasion of the Space Force’s birthday, here are some facts the intervening year may have buried. 1. The Space Force previously existed within the Air Force since 1982, as the Air Force Space Command. ( 2. The first official member of the Space Force to be sworn in is its most senior officer: Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. Raymond. ( 3. The branch’s motto is Semper Supra – “always above.” ( 4. The initial uniforms are “utilizing current Army/Air Force uniforms, saving costs of designing/producing a new one," according to a Space Force source. "Members will look like their joint counterparts they'll be working with, on the ground." ( 5. The Air Force Academy's class of 2020 included 86 graduates set to become the Space Force’s first company-grade officers. ( 6. On Sept. 15, 2020, a virtual mass swearing-in was held for about 2,400 troops transferring into the Space Force from locations around the world. ( 7. On Dec. 10, 2020, the first seven people to enlist directly in the Space Force graduated from basic training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas. ( 8. It took no special action for Space Force members to become eligible to join The American Legion, as the organization’s charter only indicates active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces. 9. The Space Force flag was unveiled at the White House in May 2020; by October, Alpharetta American Legion Post 201 in Georgia had obtained one and was flying it above their post home. (   Photo Credit:  U.S. Space Force Tech. Sgt. Eric Mistrot, 324th Training Squadron military training instructor, stands in front of his flight during a graduation ceremony on Dec. 10, 2020, at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. Seven members of the graduating class are the first Space Force trainees to graduate. (U.S. Air Force photo by Sarayuth Pinthong)
(American Legion) By Steven B. Brooks As the rains stopped and the sun came out on Dec. 11, vehicle after vehicle pulled up to a table and canopy stationed outside of Choices Coordinating Care Solutions on the northeast side of Indianapolis. Out of each vehicle either came children, adults or both – to collect what was an early Christmas, courtesy of American Legion Riders Chapter 341 in Cicero, Ind. For the second straight year ALR Chapter 341 provided Christmas presents for area foster children. A year ago it was 31 children; this year 33 children found themselves on the receiving end of Chapter 341’s generosity, ranging from ages 2-19. In the midst of a pandemic in a year full of uncertainty, sacrifice and loss, Choices Foster Care Director Reba James said Chapter 341’s gesture provided both joy and relief. “I think people are shocked and amazed and so appreciative knowing that all of our kids are totally taken care of for Christmas,” James said. “Especially during COVID, and with all the different families that are in need … it’s been hard to cover everyone. To have this happen for our families so we don’t have to worry about them is just amazing. We are so thankful, and our foster parents are thankful.” James and her staff solicited individual wish lists from each of the children; Chapter 341 spent $100 per child. In 2019, the children were able to open the presents inside while American Legion Post 341 Legion Family members watched, but COVID-19 moved this year’s effort to a drive-thru outside of Choices’ facility. A table was set up so that the children could open their presents while the Legion Riders – all clad in masks – could see the reactions their effort generated. “It’s a blast,” Chapter 341 Director Jody Brown said. “When we come here to give the gifts out and see the expressions on the kids’ faces, the smiles, and knowing we’re helping to support the parents by helping them with their foster children, it’s great.” Past Chapter 341 Director Dave Baughman said a fundraising ride brought in more than $5,000 to fund this year’s gift giveaway and get started on what will be a similar effort in 2021. “It’s very rewarding,” Baughman said of the effort. “These kids were in situations that I can only imagine. Being able to help those kids and the foster parents is a no-brainer.” In addition to shopping for all the presents, Chapter 341 Riders get together to wrap all the presents. “We’ll have 25 to 35 of our Legion Riders all in there trying to wrap Christmas presents,” he said. “Most of us don’t know what we’re doing. It’s just a lot of fun.” James said this year’s donation from Chapter 341 has been especially timely. “We’ve had some really crisis kinds of situations happen with our families,” she said. “Just recently, one of the families that was going to be coming today, the foster father was in an accident and was killed. I was emailing back and forth with the foster mom last night, and she’s not in any position to go get Christmas for the kids. She is so appreciative of this, knowing the kids are going to be getting these gifts and she doesn’t have to worry about that. “We’ve had foster parents (who contracted COVID-19), we’ve had foster parents who have lost their jobs. This year, more than ever, it’s especially meaningful because of everything everyone’s been through.” Brown also realized the importance of continuing the effort this year. “Some of these parents may have lost jobs. They’ve lost income,” he said. “We were able to rally some of our folks to raise enough money to help them out." Chapter 341 was started six years ago and has made a name for itself through its support for various causes, including The American Legion’s Operation Comfort Warriors, a local victim of a school shooting, and the daughter of a disabled veteran in need of a service dog. Brown, whose tenure of chapter director ends this month, said being a part of Chapter 341 “is amazing. I put this chapter together six years ago … with nine guys. Now we’re up to about 70 members. And not to sound cliché, but we’re so much like a family. It’s just been exciting. And I think we’ve raised in excess of $80,000 in the six years we’ve been chartered. I’m just very proud of our group and what we’re able to accomplish. Our guys have big hearts, and they’re eager to help.”