Among 13,000 posts nationwide, Hammond is going strong with 600 members. That number could swell thanks to a law recently signed by President Donald J. Trump. More on that in a bit.
Several years ago, the Mack Riddle American Legion Independence Day Parade became too much for the post to continue to spearhead. The Kingsport Chamber stepped up and now orchestrates the parade — still honoring its past by leaving “American Legion” in the title.
“We’re very thankful to the Kingsport Chamber,” Hammond Post 3 Commander Gary Stidham said. “It was a blessing for us, when we didn’t have the staff to put on the Independence Day Parade, to have the Chamber so graciously and generously take over production of the parade.”
Military honors at gravesides
The post’s members continue to focus on providing assistance to veterans, programs for local youth, and community service. One of its most repeated contributions: providing graveside military services for veterans — more than 200 per year.
Nearly six years ago, they did so for my father, a Korean War veteran who spoke little of his military service. He’d never sought veterans’ benefits. But as Parkinson’s disease stole him away from us, Mom, my siblings and I ultimately looked to see what, if any benefits were available to him. Our first stop was the Veterans Service Office within the American Legion Hammond Post 3. Veterans Service Officer Ellen Burchfield, the sole employee of the office, helped us navigate the paperwork. Our subsequent assistance from the VA was for palliative care. But when Dad passed away and we were asked if we wanted a military service at the graveside, we said yes. And it was more comforting than any of us could have imagined. The American flag the American Legion Honor Guard (all volunteers) folded into a tight triangle and presented to Mom holds a place of honor on the mantle, next to a picture of Dad in his uniform, circa 1953.
• At Boys State, participants learn the rights, privileges and responsibilities of franchised citizens. The training is objective and centers on the structure of city, county and state governments. Operated by students elected to various offices, Boys State activities include legislative sessions, court proceedings, law enforcement presentations, assemblies, bands, choruses and recreational programs. Legion posts select high school juniors to attend the program. In most cases, individual expenses are paid by a sponsoring post, a local business or another community-based organization.
• American Legion Auxiliary sponsors a separate but similar program for young women called Girls State.
• Community service has always been a core value of the American Legion. In 1925, this commitment was furthered to include a baseball program. American Legion Baseball is a national institution, having thrived through a world war, several national tragedies, and times of great prosperity as well as great despair. Hammond Post 3 sponsors a local team in the league. American Legion Baseball has taught hundreds of thousands of young Americans the importance of sportsmanship, good health and active citizenship. The program is also a promoter of equality, making teammates out of young athletes regardless of their income levels or social standings. American Legion Baseball has been, and continues to be, a stepping stone to manhood for millions of young men who have gone on to serve their country or community, raise families or play the sport at the highest level.
• The American Legion Oratorical Contest exists to develop deeper knowledge and appreciation of the U.S. Constitution among high school students. Since 1938, the program has presented participants with an academic speaking challenge that teaches important leadership qualities, the history of our nation’s laws, the ability to think and speak clearly, and an understanding of the duties, responsibilities, rights and privileges of American citizenship.Young orators earn some of the most generous college scholarships available to high school students. Over $138,000 in scholarships can be awarded each year. The overall national contest winner gets an $18,000 scholarship. Second place takes home $16,000, and third gets $14,000. Each department (state) winner who is certified into and participates in the national contest’s first round receives a $1,500 scholarship. Those who advance past the first round receive an additional $1,500 scholarship. The American Legion’s National Organization awards the scholarships, which can be used at any college or university in the United States. High school students under age 20 are eligible. Competition begins at the post level and advances to a state competition.
• The post supports several JROTC programs in local schools and continues to provide its Flag Program, which teaches flag etiquette (including the proper way to fold a flag) in area elementary schools.
The LEGION Act
• As Hammond Post 3 celebrated its 100th anniversary in July, there were about two million American Legion members nationwide. Add in members of the Auxiliary (spouses) and Sons of the American Legion and total membership was at three million.
• The LEGION Act (Let Everyone Get Involved In Opportunities for National Service Act) opens the door for approximately six million veterans to access American Legion programs and benefits for which they previously had not been eligible.
• President Trump signed a bill July 30 that declares the United States has been in a state of war since Dec. 7, 1941. The American Legion sought the declaration as a way to honor approximately 1,600 U.S. service members who were killed or wounded during previously undeclared periods of war.
• Stidham explained that before passage of the LEGION Act by Congress and its signing by President Trump, membership in the American Legion was open only to those who served during specific times of war. For example, the Vietnam era covered from Feb. 28, 1961 to May 7, 1975. The next era, Grenada/Panama began more than seven years later, lasting from Aug. 24, 1982 to July 31, 1984. The next era didn’t begin until 1991. “Millions of veterans served during those ‘gap’ periods,” Stidham said. “Now they are eligible for membership.”
• Now that the legislation has been signed, the American Legion’s eligibility criteria immediately changes from seven war eras to two: April 6, 1917, to Nov. 11, 1918, and Dec. 7, 1941 to a time later determined by the federal government. No other restrictions to American Legion membership are changed.
American Legion Hammond Post 3 is located at 301 Louis St., Suite 301, Kingsport. (Telephone 423-246-6991.)
J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. Email him at [email protected]