By Victoria Espinoza
Greenlawn American Legion Post 1244 has been giving back to the community since its inception in 1946. From returning veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, to student outreach programs designed to improve leadership skills, to efforts to recover veterans’ remains, the post’s work is seemingly never finished.
Members of the post are actively involved in national and local efforts to help improve the lives of veterans, though they also work to locate remains of veterans from conflicts as far back as the Spanish American War of 1898.
For their dedication to the community and veterans alike, Times Beacon Record News Media has chosen the members of the Greenlawn American Legion Post as People of the Year.
The post has been involved in the Missing in America Project since 2009, a national nonprofit organization that works to locate and identify the unclaimed cremated remains of American veterans to provide a final resting place as a sign of honor and respect to those who have served the United States.
John Calderelli, a member of the Greenlawn post as well as a national representative of the Missing in America Project, said he felt compelled to work with the organization once he heard there were veteran remains stored in funeral homes across the country.
“That bothered me — it really didn’t sit well with me,” Calderelli said in a phone interview. “When you go into the service and make that agreement, there is an unwritten covenant that you will be buried in a federal cemetery with all your comrades in arms. To think veterans are lying on shelves for over 100 years. I think that’s wrong.”
Calderelli said he was outraged and couldn’t believe how many veterans were unidentified — and he still can’t believe how many more veterans he’s found since then. “I feel lucky I can help them,” he said.
The post has helped lay to rest at least 100 soldiers, including two from the Civil War. They organize burial ceremonies for all the veterans they find. Some ceremonies have included rider-less horses, Civil War re-enactors, and dove releases.
The Greenlawn post actively works with Sail Ahead, a nonprofit organization that uses sailing and the ocean therapeutically to help veterans with various service-related physical disabilities and illnesses, including traumatic brain injury and PTSD. For the past two years, the post has worked with them to take veterans out sailing for a day of relaxation on the Long Island Sound. This past July, more than 140 veterans and family members enjoyed a day of sailing and a barbeque at Centerport Yacht Club.
Bob Santos, a past commander of the Greenlawn post, said the day is for both enjoying and relaxing. Santos, who was awarded Legionare of the Year for the 10th District of New York for 2016, said he was sitting with a veteran who was a victim of PTSD and as soon as the boats took off, he loosened up.
“Before long, he was laughing and joking the way we do,” Santos said in an interview. “I saw him change. It’s a beautiful event.”
Santos said the post is working with Sail Ahead to develop more frequent sailing trips that allow veterans to take each other sailing on donated ships.
Bruce Blanco leads the American Legion Riders chapter in Greenlawn. The group of motorcyclists; who escort military units returning home from combat tours overseas, conducts cross-country fundraising events for wounded warriors and raises funds for countless local, state and national charities.
In 2016 alone, the riders have participated in more than 250 missions.
“I never want to see this disappear,” Blanco said in an interview. “The riders are trying to bring attention to what the American Legion does, and help to try and make it grow.”
The post does more than just support fellow veterans; they also regularly give back to the community with educational programs.
Vets in the Classroom is an annual event that takes place at Oldfield Middle School, where veterans talk to students about their experience of serving their country.
Ken Kirsch served in the U.S. Army as a war dog handler from 1979 to 1990 and is also a member of America’s VetDogs, a nonprofit that provides enhanced mobility and renewed independence to veterans, active-duty service members, and first responders with disabilities through service dogs.
He spoke to students at Oldfield Middle School and said the kids are eager to learn about their time overseas.
“It’s very important for these veterans, especially Vietnam-era veterans, because we were not encouraged to talk about our experiences when we came back.”
“The kids were really excited about having us,” Kirsch said in a phone interview.
The program is not only beneficial for students, but for veterans as well.
“It’s very important for these veterans, especially Vietnam-era veterans, because we were not encouraged to talk about our experiences when we came back,” Santos, who served from 1966 to 1970, said. “We came back to a different world. The country changed; the military was blamed for a lot. We were called baby killers. And you shrugged it off; but it left a mark.”
Santos said Americans’ indifference back home was the hardest to deal with.
“We felt that they were indifferent to what we had experienced,” he said. “They couldn’t relate to it, they didn’t want to and they were just glad it was over.”
The former post commander said it’s important veterans talk about it with kids to help heal and teach students about the importance of their service.
The post also sponsors students on a weeklong trip to learn about democracy and build strong leadership skills.
The Boys and Girls State is a program meant for high school juniors travel upstate and run for office, learn public speaking, create and enforce laws, and actively participate in all phases of creating and running a working government.
The post sponsors the trip and raises money to send as many students as they can every summer from Harborfields High School, Walt Whitman High School, Commack High School and St. Anthony’s High School. They have raised more than $25,000 in recent years alone.
Charlie Armstrong, a legion member who works with the Boys and Girls State program says the experience is priceless for the students.
“We, of course, do a lot to help the veterans in the community, but this is when we get to reach out to the youth and help them, because they are our future,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s nice both ends of the spectrum are being helped. It’s reassuring to know there is a future happening, and these kids are all so enthusiastic about it.”
Armstrong also educates Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in the community about flag etiquette and retirement, which includes how to handle and fold a flag and how to properly dispose of one.
“We show the proper respect for the flag and how the flag is seen as a symbol of freedom from oppression to other countries around the world,” he said.
The post has also helped support students who compete in the annual American Legion High School Oratorical Contest, a public speaking contest that awards college scholarships to students.
Current Post Commander Dennis Madden said he thinks the work the post does with the community helps residents look at veterans differently.
“We’re teaching kids about Americanism, what it means to be a dedicated citizen,” Madden said in a phone interview, talking about the school programs they work with. “The general public now sees the veterans in a different light, as citizens to the country rather than military men and women. It shows we’re regular people.”