In what will be “The Event of a Century”, the Wisconsin Department of the American Legion will acknowledge serving veterans, their families and their communities for 100 years. The American Legion was established by veterans of World War I in 1919.
“The big thing right now is the Wisconsin Department is having a freedom celebration in September at the Columbia County Fairgrounds,” explained Leo Endres.
The former Waunakee Post 360 and Wisconsin Department Commander went on to say the Celebration of Freedom in Portage on Sept. 4-8 will feature activities and exhibits. Wisconsin native, Chris Kroeze, 2018 Runner-up on The Voice, will perform. And to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country and for those who have yet to return home,
“They’ll have the largest traveling Vietnam Wall from Texas there,” added Endres.
The upcoming Celebration of Freedom also commemorates a century of service by the American Legion Auxiliary. Joyce Endres, past President of the both the Auxiliary’s local unit and Wisconsin Department explained, “The Legion celebrated it’s 100th anniversary basically in 2018-19, while the Auxiliary is doing it 2019-20. So it’s overlapping a couple of years.”
Endres said about the Auxiliary, ”Even though we’re a separate organization, we exist because of the Legion. It’s the same mission: helping the military and their families; plus the community and youth.”
And both organizations have helped rekindle a sense of patriotism that waned after the Vietnam War era.
Husband Leo summed up, “We like to say that we’re still serving.”
Denise Rohan, a Madison-area veteran and the first woman elected National Commander of the Legion, said the organization is built on four pillars of service: veterans, defense, Americanism and youth.
“We take care of veterans. Part of that is also taking care of their families.
“Waunakee is a shining example of Americanism. Helping children understand the constitution and their rights as citizens. And as citizens, they have an obligation to give back.
“(And we’re) dedicated to making children in our community feel safe.”
Those pillars still stand after a century, according to Rohan.
The impact of combat wasn’t appreciated after WWI. Veterans were expected to pick up their lives and return to work. When veterans came home in 1919, they understood that they needed each other.
“By forming American Legion posts across the nation, veterans had the opportunity to talk through what was going on in their brains,” reasoned Rohan.
She explained that the Legion is focused on addressing the veteran suicide rate and the damage done to veterans by the opioid crisis. It also wants more employers to credit veterans for military training and experience.
Finally, said Rohan, “We’re military folks who just want our communities to know that we’re there if you need something. We’re hoping that posts like Waunakee will have their own celebrations.”
Area posts are stepping up during this anniversary year.
Post 481 in Westport hosted a prime rib dinner as part of the recent 2019 Wisconsin American Legion convention in Madison.
Post Commander Jodi Biser said it reflects the post’s warm hospitality. She first visited while re-acclimating after her time in the service. Biser recalled, “I just made some great friends. They just welcome you in. It’s like a big family.”
Her post is also committed to the community, sending young people to Badger Boys State each year. Biser added, “We’re very active in the needs of veterans and veterans’ rights. We have a lot of issues to deal with, like homeless veterans and PTSD.”
And Waunakee Post 360 is holding a special dinner on Aug. 8, said Commander Ed Lawson.
“It’s the 100th anniversary of the American Legion receiving its charter as a nationwide organization. We celebrate the birthday in March, but since this is the centennial, we’re taking an extra step and having something for the members. And it’s also combined with an appreciation dinner for the folks that help us out every year. We’re going to have a small program going over the history, both of the nationwide program and our local one,” Lawson said.
Past-Commander and post historian Phil Knudsvig detailed that local program.
“The Legion helps veterans and we do a lot for the Village of Waunakee,” Knudsvig said. The money earned from fish fries and during WaunaFest is reinvested in the local police department, EMS service and entities like Schumacher Farm.
Knudsvig said the Children and Youth Program includes Boys State, Girls State, scholarships and the pledge program for all first graders on Veterans Day. He noted annual funding for school projects runs into the thousands of dollars.
Commander Lawson took the opportunity to both reflect and look ahead.
“We were an advocate for veterans of World War I and it’s grown since then. It’s responsible for the GI Bill and fair housing for vets,” he said.
Then noting how the military seems to be continually engaged in recent years, “A hundred years from now, I think that’s it’s going to keep up with society and grow with it and keep the veteran in mind.”