Across the state of Wisconsin, the year 1919 is synonymous with one thing: the Green Bay Packers. But the Pack were not the only ones born that year.
“The 100th anniversary of the American Legion is being celebrated nationwide right now, actually word wide,” says Jeff Stoffer, the director of media and communications with the National Headquarters of the American Legion.
2019 marks more than just the 100th anniversary of the Legion as a whole, but September marks the 100th anniversary of the American Legion in Wisconsin.
“We wanted to do something very special for the 100th celebration, and we wanted to do something that recognized not only veterans, but law enforcement, firefighters, EMT,” says Amber Nikolai, executive director for the American Legion Department of Wisconsin.
For more than a year, Nikolai and her fellow Wisconsin veterans have been preparing for the Celebration of Freedom festival held Sept 7 and 8. The event was held at the Columbia County Fairgrounds in Portage, where the state’s American Legion headquarters also reside.
“We’re a family, and we’re a community that gives, and helps heal each other, bring each other home. I think that this event, the whole goal … was to encompass that,” Nikolai tells NBC15 News.
The Celebration of Freedom honors the history of the Legion, showing everything from drafting the GI Bill, to the progress women have made in the military over the past 100 years.
“I am the first female in the 100 year history to serve in that position, and I am from the state of Wisconsin. So it's pretty exciting to have that position,” says Denise Rohan, who served as the National Commander of the American Legion from 2017 to 2018.
Rohan’s photo is on the wall of history, surrounded by dozens of others who made their mark on the American Military over the decades. The wall of history travels across the country, as does the portable Vietnam Memorial Wall, also featured at this weekend’s Celebration of Freedom.
“We’re going to find them for you honey, I promise,” Nikolai tells a veteran looking for ten of his friends who passed away in Vietnam. “We have volunteers that are here, and willing and ready to help you if you want to find a comrade, a family member, a brother, a sister on that wall."
The century’s worth of history shows the path veterans founded for future generations.
“[The American Legion] changed public perception about veterans, and that was very important. Especially the WWI guys, who when they came home, they were really dismissed,” says Stoffer. “The WWI guys, because of this dismissal, they made a point that veterans would be treated better in time to come.”
Stoffer says the early veterans in the American Legion created programs many of us forget weren’t always available, like VA healthcare and PTSD treatment.
“I keep thinking about how many hundreds of thousands of lives have been improved, by the fact that at least now there is recognition,” Stoffer tells NBC15 News. “At least there are efforts to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
And about those Green Bay Packers – the American Legion Department of Wisconsin played a part in franchise history too.
“Curly Lambeau in 1919 came to the American Legion and said he had an idea for a football team,” Rohan says, explaining that the Green Bay American Legion Post 11 helped fund the early days of the Acme Packers. “The American Legion and the Green Bay Packers, we’ve got a great connection. They’re part of our family.”