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Pittsburgh-area Legion post proudly displays patriotism

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, residents of Murrysville, Pa., kept asking city officials, “Where are our flags?”

City officials turned to Bob McKenna, who in 1991 started the regular patriotic displays of hundreds of American flags down Route 22 in the community 20 miles east of Pittsburgh.

“This community is great,” said McKenna, a member of American Legion Post 711 in Murrysville. “We had to get 16 people together and we ended up putting up the flags on that Friday — the Day of Prayer. That was a great day.”

On the morning of Flag Day this year, McKenna once again led a delegation of Legionnaires, a half-dozen Boy Scout Venture crews and other volunteers to set up the three-mile display of American pride. One group started at the western boundary of Murrysville, setting up the 3-foot by 5-foot flags along one side of the highway. A second group started three miles down the road, placing flags on that side.

In roughly 75 minutes, all 340 flags were in place alongside the heavily traveled road.

“This event means pride in America to me,” said Post 711 Commander Frank Persia, who drove one of the vehicles this year but has walked and placed the flags previously. “I feel pride when I do it. The more people who see the display, the more patriotic I think it is. It’s a great cause.”

McKenna started “Flags over Murrysville” as a member of Kiwanis, but four years ago he transitioned it to a project for his American Legion post. He needed volunteers so he reached out to all those who had offered their assistance over the years. His goal was to get 80 volunteers who could take turns to handle the eight to 10 annual flag displays.

Post 711 members jumped at the opportunity. “The Legionnaires were 100 percent behind it; they wanted to make sure that the project didn’t die,” Persia said. “As soon as Bob said that he needed support, they were all in.”

In addition to Legionnaires, community members and others rallied to maintain the popular display.

“It’s the American flag — these men and women all fought for it,” McKenna said. “It’s a perfect fit — a better fit than Kiwanis — for The American Legion. It’s been a good thing. It’s a patriotic thing to do.”

Local businesses, community members and others sponsor flags for $25. The proceeds, about $7,000 each year, fund programs and projects for the Legion post.

Since the project began, it has grown. In 2000, the Route 22 highway expanded and so did the number of spots for flags. McKenna and his team increased the number of flags from 260 to 340.

McKenna’s 28-year project has led to at least 75,000 flags being displayed in his community. The community shows its support each time the flags are positioned. Commuters honk their horns and wave in appreciation.

“After 9/11 when we put up the flags, it was the peak moment of my life,” McKenna said. “That day, it just hit everybody. And everybody — trucks, cars, tractor-trailers, everything — blared on their horns. I never heard anything like it. It was so loud, like a New York City street. It just fired everybody up.”

The tragedy of 9/11 inspired Pam Toto to volunteer to set up the flags, which she has done dozens of times over the past decade.

“I have always admired the efforts to put up the flags to honor our country on significant days,” said Toto, who has lived in Murrysville since 1995. “But my catalyst for volunteering was after the World Trade Center attacks. A childhood friend of mine, Larry Senko, unfortunately passed away in the World Trade Center. I saw this as a way to pay tribute to him, in context of a larger representation of our country and the sacrifices that people make for our freedoms.”

As she walked the route and placed scores of flags, it gave Toto time to reflect.

“Our lives are so busy we tend to forget things,” she said. “This gives me a pause button and an opportunity to think about a friend who I grew up with and — more importantly — to think about the implications of that day, and other days, and how those actions affect all of our lives.”

Telling “War Stories”

Al Zdon is a big fan of The American Legion and its history. The 22-year Legionnaire – and communications director for the Department of Minnesota – is also serving as chairman of the department’s centennial committee, and holds a position on the national 100th Anniversary Observance Committee.

But he is also a fan of individuals, and their histories. To that end, he has composed three volumes of “War Stories: Accounts of Minnesotans Who Defended Their Nation.” The stories are taken from features he wrote for the department newspaper. Taken between them, the volumes have raised thousands of dollars for both Legion youth programs and a state World War II memorial.

Zdon spoke with The American Legion about the process, and why holding on to history is so important.

How long have you been active in department initiatives/offices/etc.?

I was the editor of the Hibbing, Minn., Daily Tribune for 20 years. I was hired in 1996 by the Minnesota American Legion to be the communications director and department newspaper editor.

Where did the idea for these books come from?

When I took over the Minnesota Legionnaire, I knew I had a problem. I had been receiving the newspaper for several years, and it kind of made a beeline from my mailbox to the circular file. If I wasn’t reading it – and I love newspapers – I knew it needed some improvements.

So I did all the usual stuff like redesign it, add more news, and make it more valuable for the veterans who read it. One of the changes was to start writing feature stories, often two or three tabloid pages long, about Minnesota veterans who had served in the wars. It took a long time, but the stories started to catch on with the readership. When they announced they were going to build a World War II memorial in Minnesota, someone suggested to me that we collect a bunch of the stories, put them in a book and sell the book to raise money for the memorial. It worked, and we raised about $70,000 for the memorial. That book is now in its fourth printing. Not big printings, but we keep running out of them.

How long does it take to put one together?

You’d think that with all the stories already written, it would be a breeze to just collect them into a book. I’ve learned otherwise. I hire two proofreaders just to untangle my brilliant prose, and also a professional designer and an artist to do the cover and the interior of the book. I desktop-publish the whole thing to save money. It will take me more than two years to do a book once the process is started.

How did you collect the stories? Who did you look for?

I do stories on all the wars, but I’ve always concentrated on the World War II guys and gals because I could see that they would not be with us much longer, and once those stories are gone they’re gone. The idea was to preserve as many stories in a permanent form as possible. I’ve done about 200 stories over the years.

How much has been raised so far? Where is the money going to?

As I said, about $70,000 for the World War II memorial here at the Minnesota Capitol. About $16,000 has been raised by the second book for Legion youth programs. We’re still trying to pay for the third book, but once we achieve that the proceeds will also go to Baseball, Boys State, Girls State, Legionville Camp and the Oratorical Contest.

Are there more volumes to come?

I call it a trilogy, because I’m pretty sure this will be the last book. There are other projects I’d like to work on while I’m still on this side of the grass. But I also hope to put all the stories on our website for permanent access. The cloud is probably the real permanent storage place now.

How do you see this as connecting to the Legion’s centennial?

It has no real connection with the centennial, except as a reminder of the rich history our veterans have provided us.

What has been the response?

People seem to like the books. It’s been my goal to let the veterans tell their own stories as much as possible. I can provide a framework, but I want their voice to come through as much as possible. I’ve found that many veterans are great storytellers, and they have a terrific sense of humor.

What do you see as the best way to get service experiences recorded so that they’re not lost to history?

I always encourage veterans to write or record their own experiences. The veterans I’ve known who have done this have enjoyed the experience, and their families will always have this important piece of history. Strangely enough, my dad would never talk about his experiences, nor would he let me tape him. So I know more about the 200 people I’ve interviewed than I do about my dad. It’s very sad, and I think that’s the story in many families. We have to preserve these stories when we have the chance.

What do you think is most important about this project?

As I said, when I started it was mainly a plan to increase readership of the newspaper. I figured veterans would like to read about veterans. But as time went by, and the books started coming out, the project took on a life of its own. I’ve been a newspaperman for over 50 years, if you count my high school writing, and I’ve done everything from interview presidents to write a lengthy report about the death camps in Poland. But I consider these stories as the most important project of my professional life.

The three “War Stories” volumes can be ordered at

GI Bill exhibit headed to George. H.W. Bush Library

The American Legion’s Department of Texas celebrates the Post 9/11 GI Bill’s 10th Anniversary June 23 through Aug. 16 by welcoming a multi-media exhibit honoring the organization’s most impactful legislative accomplishment at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas.

The display documents the story of the “greatest legislation,” which The American Legion originally drafted and pushed to passage in 1943 and 1944. It features illustrated panels, video kiosks and artifacts that show the dramatic story of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, the massive effects it had on U.S. society and the ongoing effort to continue improving it for new generations, through to the passage last August of the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017 – the “Forever GI Bill.”

The exhibit has been touring the country since its debut in June 2017 at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. It has also been presented at the 10th Student Veterans of America National Convention in San Antonio, Bob Hope Patriotic Hall in Los Angeles, the Montana Military Museum in Helena, Mont., and the Iowa Gold Star Museum at Camp Dodge, Iowa.

Originally drafted by American Legion Past National Commander Harry W. Colmery in the winter of 1943, the GI Bill transformed the U.S. economy in the second half of the 20th century. Often characterized as America’s most significant social legislation of the last 100 years, it is credited for averting economic disaster after World War II, educating millions, making college and home ownership a reasonable expectation for average Americans, leading to the all-volunteer military and advancing civil rights.

Following its presentation in Texas, the “Greatest Legislation: An American Legion Centennial Salute to the GI Bill” exhibit will move to Minneapolis for the 100th American Legion National Convention.

What you might not know about the Army

June 14 is the birthday of the U.S. Army. According to the U.S. Army Center of Military History’s website – at – it was on June 14, 1775, that “the Continental Congress authorized enlistment of expert riflemen to serve the United Colonies for one year.”

The site also includes information about the specific birthdays of the Army's basic and special branches. Those are interesting factoids in themselves, but here are some other things you might not know about the institution.

1. Before World War II, 45th Infantry Division members wore a swastika patch on their left shoulder in honor of Native Americans. It was changed to a thunderbird in the 1930s. (via USO)

2. The Army was tasked with mapping America, including the Lewis & Clark expedition. Army officers were some of the first American citizens to see Pikes Peak and the Grand Canyon. (via USO)

3. The Army was the last service branch to adopt an official song. On Veterans Day 1956, “The Army Goes Rolling Along” was so declared. (via USO)

4. Twenty-four U.S. presidents served in the Army, including in state militias that supported it during the American Revolution and the Civil War. (via Mental Floss)

5. And two of them are connected: in the famous painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, the man holding the flag alongside future president George Washington is future president James Monroe. (via Mental Floss)

6. There are Army astronauts, who wear astronaut wings. One is retired Col. Douglas Wheelock, who logged 178 days in space after serving as the first active-duty soldier to command the International Space Station. (via Mental Floss)

7. If the Army was a city, it would be the 10th-largest in the United States. (via We Are the Mighty)

8. And it owns so much land that if it was a state, it would be larger than Hawaii and Massachusetts combined. (via We Are the Mighty)

9. In 2011, each soldier required 22 gallons of fuel per day on average; a soldier during World War II only required 1 gallon of fuel per day on average. (via Fact Retriever)

10. The oldest active-duty infantry unit is the famous 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as "The Old Guard." Stood up in 1784, the 3rd is an official ceremonial unit and escort to the president of the United States, and is also in charge of the "Changing of the Guard Ceremony" at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Old Guard received The American Legion’s Distinguished Service Medal in 2016. (via Fact Retriever)

'I always wanted (this flag) to fly over Boys State'

The American flag Jonathan Leatherman Clason brought to Oklahoma Boys State had a lot of miles on it.

It’s the last few feet, up and back down the flagpole at NEO A&M College, site of Oklahoma Boys State, that meant so much to Clason.

“I knew carrying (that flag) around on all those missions, all those years, all those flight hours, that I always wanted it to fly over Boys State. I never knew when it would, but I’m glad that it did this year,” said Clason, a former Oklahoma Boys State delegate and a senior counselor now at the program.

A pilot in the Air Force, Clason was given the flag by a student who challenged him to take it around the world with him. So Clason did — “it has a permanent spot in my suitcase” — taking the flag to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines, Laos and more, 36 countries in all.

The American flag itself has meant a lot to Clason for a long time. He remembers being profoundly moved when, as a Boys State delegate in 1999, he noticed the veterans who would stop and salute the flag whenever they walked on or off the stage.

“I think about those who have given the ultimate sacrifice. I think of my gratitude to being able to serve in the uniform and wear the cloth of the nation just like those who have gone before me and served under the same flag,” he said.

And while a dual member of the Legion and the Sons of The American Legion, Clason wore his SAL cap during his week at Boys State, a tribute to his grandfather.

“His stories just gave me more meaning and more gratitude for my service to my country,” Clason said.

Those thoughts — of the flag, the veterans who came before him, those who sacrificed their lives for freedom — struck Clason as he watched his flag rise above Oklahoma Boys State.

“As it was raised up the flagpole in the morning, I thought, man, that’s my flag. All the places that it’s been. And then I carried on throughout the day, but I found myself thinking about it throughout the day, as I would drive by, I would look up on the flagpole. I knew that was my flag. I know where that flag’s been. And then it hit home in the evening, when I stood in formation and they were bringing down the flag, and I stood with 400-plus boys saluting that flag, other veterans who had fought in war, other veterans who have retired, thinking of those who I had known before who had passed on.

“This is where I learned about patriotism, this is where I learned about government, and that flag was kind of a culmination. … I had gratitude that I could pass it on, I could share it and talk about it to my city, with my county, with other young men, and share my pride, share my patriotism, share some stories that I have that they can take and pass on, they can learn from, they can grow and they’ll know more about our great country and The American Legion program which got me to where I am today. And I couldn’t be more thankful for.”

178 Legionnaires recruit 9,760 new members

Nearly 9,800 veterans from across the nation are now members of The American Legion thanks to the recruiting efforts of 178 Legionnaires.

For the 2017-2018 American Legion membership year, 107 Legionnaires earned the Gold Brigade award and 71 earned the Silver Brigade award. See a list of the Gold Brigade recipients here and the Silver Brigade recipients here.

The 2018 National Recruiter of the Year is David Witucki of Post 490 in Houston; he recruited 578 new members. A Legionnaire for only three years, this is Witucki's second consecutive Gold Brigade award. Last year he recruited 70 new members by asking Post 490 visitors from Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base to join. Witucki's recruiting success for the 2017-2018 membership year was mostly due to acquiring a permanent pass onto Ellington base.

"When I became first vice commander last year, I told post members that I'll make sure everybody in the country knows who Post 490 is. And it turned out to be true," Witucki said. "I never thought that I would make National Recuiter of the Year, just maybe in the top five. It's outstanding. I was excited when (National Headquarters) told me I won the award."

As the National Recruiter of the Year, Witucki will receive an all-expense paid trip to the 100th National Convention in Minneapolis in August, and tickets to the National Commander's Banquet for Distinguished Guests.

Legionnaires who recruit 50 or more new members (transfers do not count as new members) into The American Legion by the May target date qualify for enrollment in The American Legion’s elite Gold Brigade. And a Legionnaire who recruits 25-49 new members (transfers do not count) into the Legion by the May target date qualifies for the Silver Brigade award.

Sons marker dedicated at New Hampshire Veterans Cemetery

A memorial walkway in the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery was lined with monuments dedicated to various branches of service and veterans service organizations, including The American Legion and the Legion family.

But there was no memorial from the Sons of The American Legion — until now.

On Saturday, a three-year project to erect a marker for the Sons came to fruition with a ceremony to dedicate the six-foot-tall, 3,500-pound monument at the veterans cemetery in Boscawen, N.H.

Gary DesRosiers, the finance committee chairman for the New Hampshire detachment of the Sons, said the project stemmed from a budget meeting with the state department three years ago.

“They asked, ‘Have you guys ever been up to the cemetery in Boscawen?’ Of course, I’ve been there for services. ‘Well, you know they have a memorial walkway up there. … there’s an area up there in the back corner where it’s pretty much just American Legion.’”

But there was no memorial from the Sons. “All of the other organizations of The American Legion Family in New Hampshire, everybody had something up there in Boscawen except us,” DesRosiers said. “It was extremely important to us to have the respect and dignity of our forefathers who fought in the great wars, which is in our preamble.”

So DesRosiers sought and received permission to have a monument made. Phil Davidson, a detachment vice commander who works for a granite monument company, helped get the marker made.

“There can never be an exact duplicate of that stone because it was hand-chipped out of granite,” DesRosiers said.

Saturday’s dedication ceremony included past SAL National Commander Dave Stephens, current SAL National Commander Danny Smith and leading candidate for SAL national commander Greg Gibbs, as well as State Sen. Jeb Bradley.

Stephens said during the dedication, “The monument is more than a piece of granite. It serves as a reminder that the Sons of The American Legion are serving the veterans, widowers and their families.”

DesRosiers extended his thanks to the color guard from Woodsville Detachment 20; Legionnaire Patrick Boyle, who played the bagpipes at the ceremony; visitors from the Vermont SAL detachment and past and present leadership of the entire Legion Family who attended the ceremony.

Filling a gap after a tragedy

On March 2 of this year, Boone County (Ind.) Sheriff’s Department Deputy Jacob Pickett was fatally shot while pursuing a man fleeing from police. The death of the K-9 officer and father of two young children rocked both the sheriff’s department and the local community.

For American Legion Rider L.J. Jermstadt, who had met Pickett and regularly does training with the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, Pickett’s death has carried a lingering effect.

“Since Deputy Pickett went down, I know that there have been other officers that have went down in the line of duty,” said Jermstadt, the ride coordinator for ALR Chapter 410 in Whitestown, Ind., which is less than 10 miles from the sheriff’s department. “It brings that closer to home. Even though they don’t live here, having lost one of our own, you think about it.

“I have a lot of involvement with both the Boone County Sheriff’s Department and the Whitestown (Police Department), so I know the toll that it takes on them.”

Pickett had been paired up with Brik, a K-9 officer. The two were “inseparable,” according to news reports, and when Pickett was killed, the decision was made to retire Brik so he could live with Pickett’s family.

That left the sheriff’s department without a K-9 officer, which is where American Legion Riders Chapter 497 in Indianapolis stepped up. The Riders conducted Brik’s Benefit for BCSO ride June 9 in order to raise money for the department to purchase and train a new K-9 officer.

“This was more of a ride paying homage both to Deputy Pickett and his K-9 unit who was not only his family member, but a partner,” said Brandon McKee, assistant director for Chapter 497 and an Operation Desert Storm Air Force veteran. “Those of us that have dogs, they’re part of the family.

“This was a two-fold thing: The Pickett family not only lost … a husband and a father, but Brik lost a partner and his dad. It runs that deep.”

So “to appeal to both sides of the coin,” McKee said Chapter 497 decided to make the ride about both Pickett and Brik. “We were kind of Brik’s voice today,” McKee said. “As silly as that may sound, we were speaking for (Brik). And the fact that Brik got retired to the family, (the sheriff’s department) is now out a K-9. We wanted to try to fill that gap.”

The ride raised $1,229, and Post 497 matched that to bring the total to $2,458. A donation of $20,000 made anonymously to the ride and forwarded to the sheriff’s department pushed the amount to more than $22,000 – enough to fund the purchase and training of a new K-9 officer.

“We are a family; therefore, we love, fight and cry like family,” McKee said of Chapter 497. “I think what brings us together is at the end of the day we are all about the same thing here: the camaraderie of being brothers and sisters, and being a part of something bigger than us.”

The ride left American Legion Post 79 in Zionsville, Ind., and made stops at Post 410, Post 113 in Lebanon and Post 331 in Brownsburg before finishing back at Post 497. The ride included a pass and engine revving in front of the Boone County Sheriff’s Office.

Jack Schoettle, who spent 29 years with the Boone County Sheriff’s Department and had met Pickett a few times after retiring, said Pickett’s death “was kind of devastating” to those in or formerly in the Boone County law enforcement community. “It’s devastating not only to Boone County, but all over the United States."

Schoettle, who rides with Harley Motorcycle Group (H.O.G.) and took part in Chapter 497’s ride, said the Legion Riders’ gesture toward the sheriff’s department “is very heartwarming and very appreciated. The motorcycle community is one of the biggest fundraiser for different organizations.”

Chapter 410 Legion Riders Director Mike Augh was at the stop in Whitestown where the riders were treated to food and drinks. He said a ride like the one on June 9 “is the best of both worlds. Not only do we get to get out on our bikes and ride, but we’re doing stuff for the community, raising money for good causes, and supporting our local law enforcement and trying to help them get back on their feet after a serious loss."

Although the ride started off in good weather, storm clouds moved in midway through, unleashing heavy rain on the riders between Lebanon and Brownsburg. But that wasn’t going to stop Mike Aubrey, the road captain for the ride and the ride coordinator for Chapter 497.

“We’re here for a reason, and we’re here to get it accomplished,” Aubrey said. “It’s being able to give back. The world has a lot of bad in it. The more good people can do and the more people see good being done, they have faith back in humanity.

“This (ride) just hit home for me. I’m from Lebanon, so it was personal.”

The weather also didn’t deter Chapter 497 Legion Rider Lawrence Przybylski from completing the ride. “The cause is a pretty good one,” he said. “This ride is about replacing Brik and raising funds to do that. It’s a costly effort to train a dog to be a police dog. We think it’s a worthy cause.”

USAA Tips: Military leadership skills during times of chaotic change

Content provided courtesy of USAA | By Chad Storlie

Chaos exists when there is an enormous difference between what we expect and what we see. Chaos can be a business fighting for its life, a military experience, or a parent taking care of three toddlers by themselves over a long weekend.

The important thing to realize is that just because chaos exists does not mean you have to fall victim or even feel like a victim to a chaotic environment. Military skills help leaders at all levels adapt, adjust, and overcome chaos to achieve success.

Here are 5 ways to use military leadership skills to manage chaos:

  1. Lead by example in all things. Leaders must be their best when the situation is at the worst. Leadership by example is a time honored military tradition where a leader sets a positive example from the lowest level to the highest level of activities. Leadership by example is central during times of chaos because people want to see a leader who is still confident, engaged, working to solve problems, and visible for others to see and interact.

  2. Focus the organization on the top 2-3 greatest dangers. Leaders and organizations need to be incredibly focused on their greatest challenges and ensure the entire organization is focused on how to respond to those dangers. During the Apollo 13 lunar mission, an accident caused a life-threatening explosion that endangered the lives of three astronauts. The NASA command group based in Houston immediately assessed they now had two primary missions: (1) keep the astronauts alive and (2) return them safely to earth. During chaos, organizations need to get to their 2-3 primary missions and no more.

  3. Lead with sharing information in an open, frequent and honest approach. There is a tendency when things start to go wrong to reduce or stop sharing information. This is a natural leadership tendency because leaders do not want to be seen without all the necessary information. However, in times of chaos, leaders need to share more, be more open with information, and be visible and present during the information sharing process.

  4. Use the concept of commander’s intent. Commander’s intent is a military mission planning principle that works well in chaos. Commander’s intent is when a leader spells out precisely what success looks like and what the specific measures of success will be for the organization. Commander’s intent is vital during chaotic times because people want to know what they can do to ensure success even though chaos exists. When a leader talks about what success will be, then people know what they can do to act and initiative to guide their actions towards the organization’s success. Plans often fail, but commander’s intent picks up when plans fail to enable action and initiative towards the final goal.

  5. Focus on people. Continuing to focus on the well-being of people is an easily forgotten aspect of leadership during times of chaos. Leaders often focus solely on the problem and forget to focus on the individuals that will carry out the solution to the problem. In any organization, in any industry, and in any part of the world, it is people, not money, computers, data or resources, that are an organization’s most important resources. Chaos eventually subsides because people and their leaders rise to confront, solve, and overcome the challenges.

Chaos can be an ending or a new beginning to leaders, a team, and an organization. Leaders and organizations that truly adopt and utilize military leadership skills during times of chaos will find themselves successful and better for the harrowing experience.

Share your family's story of Legion leadership

As The American Legion readies to kick off its 15-month Centennial Celebration, it is looking for stories of extraordinary Legion service by generations of families.

For example, we are looking for stories of multiple generations of family members who have served as commanders at the same post. Or spouses who are currently serving in post leadership roles. Perhaps a current member is serving in a post leadership role that was held earlier by other family members.

To share your family's story of American Legion service and leadership, please visit and select "Family History." Please also upload a photo. Submissions will be reviewed by an editor and considered for publication on the national website,, and in The American Legion Magazine.

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