In the wake of World War I, the Flathead Valley was like most places in America during those long winter months that followed the signing of the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918.
There was a desire to help war-weary veterans as they returned home from “The Great War.” Patriotism flourished in communities across the country as they welcomed home the troops.
It was on this day, March 15, 1919, the American Legion was created as a patriotic veterans organization, as members of the American Expeditionary Force convened in Paris for the first American Legion caucus, to talk about ways to improve troop morale. Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the eldest son of President Teddy Roosevelt, was among the founders of the American Legion.
From Day One, the organization has focused on four pillars: veterans affairs and rehabilitation, national security, Americanism and children and youth.
After the American Legion was chartered by Congress, posts starting popping up all over the country, and the Flathead Valley was no exception.
In Kalispell, Post 7 was chartered in 1919 and members met regularly for decades at a Main Street building that was a bar and served as the Post’s quarters until 1970, when the organization sold the downtown building at purchased the former Church of God building on Fourth Avenue East North, where the post still operates.
A second Kalispell American Legion post, Post 137, received its charter in 2003. Posts 7 and 137 merged in 2006, the same year Auxiliary Unit 137 was chartered.
Community service projects and programs for youth are still a key focus of the American Legion 100 years later, along with the organization’s focus on veterans.
The American Legion High School Oratorical Scholarship Program has been going strong for more than 80 years and has awarded several million dollars in scholarships to high school students nationwide.
The oratorical contest aims to develop a deeper knowledge and appreciation of the Constitution of the United States among high school students and hone leadership skills among young people.
Locally, Flathead High School senior Sierra Dilworth has been a recent standout in the oratorical contest. She won at the district level last year, and this year won at the district and state levels to advance to national competition in April.
Another strong youth program is the American Legion Boys State Program that helps teach high school junior boys about democracy. Post 137 sponsors the cost to send four to six boys each year to the encampment in Helena.
The white-cross program is one of the American Legion’s most visible projects in Montana. For nearly seven decades the white crosses have dotted the state’s highway landscape, marking the sites of fatal accidents as a reminder for motorists to drive defensively, and with caution. American Legion members erect the white crosses and keep them maintained throughout the state.
American Legion Post 137 activities also include flag retirement ceremonies, highway cleanup, sponsorship of the American Legion Baseball program, and participation in veterans programs and activities.
“It’s important the Legion be involved in the community,” Post 137 Commander Jim Miller said.
Ed Van Scoten, a retired Air Force technical sergeant who heads publicity for the post, said the American Legion continues to play a role in strengthening local communities.
“I appreciate the fact that what they do is service projects for the community,” Van Scoten said.
Auxiliary Unit 137 works hand in hand with the post members to help veterans and their families, noted Ann MacCary, who has been actively involved with the local auxiliary since it formed 13 years ago.
The auxiliary has its own list of community-service projects, such as monthly birthday parities and a free Christmas store for residents of the Montana Veterans Home in Columbia Falls. The auxiliary has “adopted” the Marion School, providing school supplies to students. It sends high school junior girls to Girls State, and donates to Wreathes across American and Shodair Children’s Hospital, along with supporting an array of other organizations such as Toys for Tots and the Northwest Montana Veterans Food Pantry.
Like many organizations, the challenge for the American Legion today is how to get younger veterans involved, Miller said. “What can we do to serve veterans of the 21st century?”
For more information about the American Legion, or membership requirement, contact Miller at 208-874-3418.
For information about Auxiliary Unit 137, contact Jeanna Sibbert, 406-212-5395.
News editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or email@example.com.