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Close the Post-9/11 GI Bill loophole, Legion tells Congress

Closing a loophole in the Post-9/11 GI Bill would help veterans and save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, The American Legion testified before Congress Sept. 21.

David Proferes, policy coordinator for The American Legion Veterans Employment and Education Division, testified Sept. 21 before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity. The hearing focused on pending and draft legislation related to the economic wellbeing of veterans.

H.R. 4874, the Fly Vets Act, would amend title 38 of the United States Code to improve the use of educational assistance provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for flight training programs. Since 2015, when The Los Angeles Times exposed that some institutions had instituted extreme costs for flight fees due to the lack of caps in place for public schools, VA and State Approving Agencies increased their oversight and ultimately lowered the overall cost of flight training from $79.8 million, in 2014, to $49.2 million.

“It has come to The American Legion’s attention that tuition and fees at flight schools have increased dramatically, costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars per student,” Proferes told the subcommittee. “Flight schools have inflated prices, and been successful doing so, by exploiting an unforeseen and unintentional loophole in the Post-9/11 GI Bill.”

The loophole caps yearly tuition and fees for private schools but not for public schools.

“H.R. 4874 would close this loophole by capping tuition and fees for flight schools at $25,162 per year,” said Proferes. “Additionally, to not hinder veterans wishing to pursue flight school, this draft legislation would allow veterans to accelerate two years of education entitlement into one year of flight school.”

The American Legion’s testimony also addressed draft legislation to amend the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act provides certain protections to active duty, reservist and National Guard servicemembers on active duty.

“However, higher education is notably absent from the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act,” Proferes testified. “Servicemembers can be negatively impacted both academically and financially by schools due to training or deployment obligations which take them out of classes.

“The draft legislation would correct this oversight by allowing servicemembers who receive active duty or inactive duty orders to withdrawal or take a leave of absence from classes without facing adverse action by academic institutions.”

The American Legion supports the protections the draft legislation would provide servicemembers, with the recommendation of stipulating a minimum number of days within a month that a servicemember cannot attend class due to service status.

Proferes also highlighted in his testimony before the subcommittee a medical discharge loophole affecting National Guard servicemembers.

When a member of the Ohio National Guard deployed in 2011, he developed exercise-induced anaphylaxis as a result of his duties on the deployment. After being released from active duty, he underwent a medical evaluation board and was ultimately medically retired under the standard National Guard discharge form, NGB-22.

“He was told by VA that because the retirement resulted from a service-connected disability obtained while on active duty, his GI Bill would be increased from 60 percent to 100 percent,” said Proferes. “However, only later did VA inform him that he was only entitled to 60 percent which was the total active-duty time he had before sustaining injuries. It was at that point he contacted The American Legion.”

The American Legion pursued the issue with VA, but because the servicemember’s medical discharge was from the National Guard via NGB-22, he was considered ineligible despite the paper trail showing that the discharging injuries were service-connected.

“Our servicemembers are led to believe that if they sustain injuries on active duty that led to a medical discharge and permanent disability, they will at least have a GI Bill to give them a chance for successful transition into civilian life,” said Proferes. “But right now, VA is resting on a technicality of their type of discharge that dismisses servicemembers injuries, and we need your help to right this wrong,” he told the subcommittee.

You can watch the full hearing here.

 

A victory for LGBTQ+ veterans discharged under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced Sept. 20 that veterans forced out of the military with other than honorable discharges under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy will now be eligible for VA benefits.

“Despite serving with extraordinary honor and courage throughout our history, more than 100,000 American servicemembers have been discharged because of their sexual orientation or gender identity — including some 14,000 under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” President Biden said in a statement released on the 10th anniversary of the repeal of the policy.

“I am thankful for all of the LGBTQ+ servicemembers and veterans who strengthen our military and our nation,” the president added. “We must honor their sacrifice by continuing the fight for full equality for LGBTQ+ people.”

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin echoed the president’s sentiments.

“We have more work to do, particularly as it relates to righting old wrongs,” he said. “No veteran should bear a less than honorable discharge based solely on sexual orientation or gender identity.”

The American Legion strongly supports H.R.1596, Commission to Study the Stigmatization, Criminalization, and Ongoing Exclusion and Inequity for LGBTQ Servicemembers and Veterans Act. Led by House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., this bill establishes a commission that must identify and compile information about the history of military policy regarding homosexuality from 1778 onward, including LGBTQ+ sexual orientation and gender identity.

The duties of this commission are to hold public hearings, gather public testimony, examine lasting and disparate impacts of the discriminatory policies on the physical and mental well-being of members of the armed forces, and make recommendations on appropriate remedies. Takano and Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Chairman Chris Pappas, D-N.H., applauded VA’s new directive ensuring LGBTQ+ veterans can finally access the care and benefits they’ve earned. 

“With today’s announcement, VA is sending a clear message that LGBTQ+ veterans’ service matters and that VA acknowledges the long-lasting effects that the draconian Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy had,” said Takano.

Pappas agreed.

“It’s welcome news that VA announced a new directive today to start the process of correcting the double standard that has long persisted for LGBTQ+ servicemembers and veterans,” he said. “It’s past time these veterans are afforded the benefits they’ve rightfully earned defending our country.”

 

 

 

Department of Minnesota greenlights softball league

Three years ago, as Mike Arvidson’s daughter was keeping stats for an American Legion Baseball game he was coaching, she asked if she could play American Legion softball some day.

“I’m like, no, actually, you can’t because it doesn’t exist,” said Arvidson, an SAL member from Parkers Prairie, Minn., who’s coached baseball for some 14 years in the state and served on the Department of Minnesota’s baseball committee since 2016.

At its meeting Aug. 7, Minnesota’s Department Executive Committee approved the creation of a fastpitch softball committee and appointed Arvidson as program director.

“It’s been a slow process, but I think it’s starting to pick up speed,” Arvidson said of the program’s creation.

Fortunately, Arvidson has been able to draw on the experiences of other departments which created fastpitch softball programs. “I’ve been in touch with Mike Hasson down in North Carolina. … This summer South Carolina had a league, I believe Idaho had a league. … They’ve been good to talk to as far as how they’ve done things, that’s been a bonus,” Arvidson said.

And he’s optimistic that the state’s embrace of American Legion Baseball – the department fielded 393 baseball teams this summer – will help the fledgling fastpitch softball league make a successful debut.

“I think the biggest challenge is going to be the buy-in. There’s going to be some parts of the state that are going to be a lot easier to buy in than others,” he said. “Out here (in western Minnesota) we have softball leagues but nothing’s tied together.”

Arvidson is hoping the prospects of an American Legion softball state tournament will draw in existing teams who don’t have a postseason opportunity because their current leagues don’t have enough teams to make a postseason tournament worth the expense.

Registration will begin Jan. 1, with plans for a six-week regular season in June and July and a state tournament the week before the state baseball tournament.

Another selling point, as Arvidson sees it, are the values inherent to existing American Legion youth programs.

“The nice thing about Legion is all the sportsmanship, the character, the values that come along with it. The community aspect, being able to tie the current kids in to the veterans in the community is an important aspect. … I think that’s an important value that some of these other leagues don’t offer,” he said.

He noted the North Carolina league’s tradition of the softball players “playing” for a veteran.

“It can really tie the community together,” Arvidson said. “Veterans went through a lot to get us where we are today, and some of them still struggle with some of the things they had to go through, and I think this is a great opportunity for our younger generation to relate and learn from our older generation and hopefully make some friendships too.”

And one more bonus to the new league: “It’s really about giving the girls the same opportunity that we give the boys,” Arvidson said.

‘This community … won’t be the same for years and years to come’

Al Hebert remembers riding out Hurricane Betsy, the 1965 storm which caused millions of dollars in damages in Louisiana and other states and prompted the building of taller, stronger levees in New Orleans.

“Betsy seemed like a pussycat compared to this storm,” Hebert said of Hurricane Ida, which made landfall near Port Fourchon, La., on Aug. 29.

Just like with Hurricane Betsy 56 years earlier, Hebert stayed home to ride out Ida, primarily because he and his wife didn’t want to risk getting caught in slow-moving traffic north of Montegut, La. But the commander of Post 272 says he won’t stay put again.

“We had no water until four days ago. Electricity, we got this three days ago,” Hebert said during a phone conversation on Sept. 22.

The devastation caused by Ida, especially in the parishes south of New Orleans, is almost too much to bear.

“It’s bad,” said Post 31 Commander Lynette Blanchard. “I grew up down there, it’s my home town in Chauvin. I’ve never seen people having to live in a tent. I’ve never seen the houses in the bayou with just the roofs showing. I hope I never have to see this again.”

Much of the damage near Hebert was caused by high winds; Ida’s 150 mph maximum sustained winds at landfall are tied for the strongest on record in Louisiana.

“(Hurricane) Katrina had water but they never had winds (like this). This has got to be the worst windstorm of a hurricane in probably Louisiana’s entire history. You’d have to see this to believe it,” Hebert said, noting the number of trees and power lines knocked down by the storm.

“This community and this parish won’t be the same for years and years to come,” he added.

“It’s going to be a long time before there’s any sense of normalcy down here,” Blanchard said. “There are so many that are displaced. I myself have five children, four of our children have substantial damage, two of them their homes are unlivable. And they’re not even down in the lower portions of the parishes. … The insurance adjusters are just getting out here. And all of this stuff takes time, and in the meantime, we’ve got mold and mildew (from floodwaters) and it presents a whole different type of problem.

“What you see in the media is just the tip of the iceberg,” Blanchard added. “The devastation to see in person, it renders you speechless; there’s so much devastation. The news media shows the New Orleans area more than anything, and we know that. It’s a big city and it’s the main tourism (destination). But it’s the lower part of the state, the seafood industry, the trawlers, the fishermen, oil fields (that have been so devastated). (The) BP (spill) was nothing, Betsy, Katrina was nothing compared to what these people have endured down here.”

While members of Louisiana’s Legion Family deal with Ida’s direct impact, they’re grateful for help coming from other departments, and other organizations.

National Guardsmen are staying at the recreation center across the street from Hebert’s post. “They’ve been using the canopy of our facility to pass out goods, to stay out of the sun,” he said. And he noted a trio of tractor-trailers filled with donated supplies from the Department of Alabama are expected later this week.

Post 31 in Houma has turned over part of its hall to Team Rubicon as that organization has mobilized to help those impacted by the storm.

“They had no power, the roof leaks in our post, there were leaks in our storage area; they cleaned everything up, they patched everything up, any time something breaks or goes wrong they patch it or they fix it, they’ve been phenomenal with our post,” Blanchard said. “And in the community they are doing so much, they are doing the muck-ups, they are doing tree removal, they’re doing debris removal, tarps, all those different types of things. They send out a crew to evaluate to see if it’s something they can handle and if it is they line up a crew to go and take care of it. They’ve been fantastic and we look forward to working with them again in the future. It’s been a pleasure dealing with them.”

Numerous other organizations, among them the Red Cross and Samaritan’s Purse, have also come in to help. And, Blanchard said, those who live in the devastated areas are also helping their communities.

“They are cooking in large amounts, they’re cooking for our linemen who are out here restoring power,” she said. “The biggest challenge that we’re having is getting the resources, the donations, the hot meals, the ice, down to the lower parts of our parishes, because that’s the hardest hit.”

National Emergency Fund

American Legion posts, Legion members and SAL members who have been impacted by a declared natural disaster are eligible for grants from The American Legion’s National Emergency Fund.

The NEF provides up to $3,000 for Legion and SAL members with an active membership who have been displaced due to damages to their primary residence, and up to $10,000 for posts that have been damaged by a natural disaster and whose programs and activities within the community are impacted. To apply for an NEF grant, please visit www.legion.org/emergency.

Since its creation in 1989 in response to the devastation of Hurricane Hugo, the NEF has provided more than $8 million in direct financial assistance to American Legion and SAL members and American Legion posts.

Donations are also accepted to fund the NEF. One hundred percent of donations to the NEF directly help veterans and their families recover from natural disasters. To donate to the NEF, click here.

Johnson to finish INDYCAR season where racing dreams started

A season of learning a different form of racing for Jimmie Johnson culminates with the race that started his racing dream in the 1990s.

It’s the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, Calif., where Johnson was just a kid and one of the many spectators that came to the event and dreamed of one day becoming a race driver.

This weekend, Johnson will go from race fan to the starting grid in the No. 48 Carvana/American Legion Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing.

“I am so excited to be here and so thankful for this opportunity,” Johnson told The American Legion. “I was a teenage kid coming to this race and dreaming of being in the race. This was also, when it was traditionally held in April, my check-in with Chevrolet (his racing supporter at that time). We would lay out the following year and makes plans for where my career was going to go.

“Not only did I dream about being a race driver here, but I also found out what my fate was for the following season.”

Johnson’s inspiration to become a race driver began at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach more than 30 years ago.

At that time, he was a youngster from El Cajon, Calif., who looked forward to the beautiful spring days in Southern California. That meant a trip with his dad to his favorite sporting event, the annual Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach where the top drivers in CART would race on the streets of this beautiful seaside community.

Before he went to the race for the first time in 1990, Johnson watched the big names of auto racing compete on the streets of Long Beach.

It’s where he got to watch racing heroes Mario and Michael Andretti, AJ Foyt, Rick Mears, and a driver known as “The King of the Beach” – Al Unser Jr.

“I still remember going as a young kid, being there in April and the excitement of a new season and the energy that went with that,” Johnson recalled. “I've hung on the fence and have dreamt of being on the inside.

“I honestly have never gotten an autograph, but I would stalk, I would watch and study any team or driver that I could. Back then, I didn’t have passes to get anywhere so my exposure was pretty limited.

“Robby Gordon was the first driver that I got to talk to. He came out of the off-road industry, and we knew his family very well and Robby very well. Ironically, now I’m meeting more of the drivers from that era that I didn’t have access to and have been able to get to know. I was a big Al Unser Jr. fan and have gotten to know him and Jimmy Vasser was somebody that I was into and really liked his vibe.”

The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach is generally held every April but was canceled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Long Beach Grand Prix Association decided to move the 2021 Grand Prix to the last race of the season in September so that fans could attend the annual street race that is one of the largest sporting events held in California every year.

It was the annual trips to the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach that inspired Johnson to become a race driver.

“I was hooked by the sound of the cars,” Johnson said. “I’ll never forget walking across the street, and you could hear the cars racing by and it would make my skin crawl. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The crossover bridge on the back straightaway hearing the cars, that was the moment for me.

“There are so many positive memories that I have from there. I spent a lot of time in the Long Beach area, some of the beaches nearby growing up. It was neat to see something so big come so close to home for me and have these heroes of mine racing on that track.

“For me, it’s neat that it’s finally here and I’m really glad to be a part of it.”

Since that time, Johnson has enjoyed a legendary career including 83 victories in NASCAR Cup. He is one of only three drivers in history to win seven NASCAR Cup Series championships. The other two are legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

The recently turned 46-year-old Johnson is no longer a kid, but he is a rookie in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES driving the No. 48 Carvana/American Legion Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing on the street and road courses on the 2021 schedule.

On Sept. 26, Johnson will achieve a childhood dream when he competes in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.

“To have a chance to race there closes this loop from a childhood dream to make it reality,” Johnson admitted. “To be close to the area I grew up, I'm sure I'll have tons of friends there from my hometown and then new friends that I've met over the years that want to come in and support. It's going to be a very fun weekend, and Sunday night we'll have plenty to celebrate.

“I can’t wait to race there next April and check that box, but I am really excited it’s at the end of the year now so I will have a full year of experience to put my best effort forward on that iconic track in such a special, emotional moment for me.”

The first half of Johnson’s rookie season in INDYCAR saw him trying to learn the new type of racing machine and acclimate himself to a completely different form of racing. The second half, however, has seen Johnson make progressive improvement from race-to-race.

He is coming off his most competitive race of the season, when he was able to master the famed “Corkscrew” at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca. He was able to pass long-time, INDYCAR veterans on the track, including a spectacular battle with James Hinchcliffe.

“It really has been important and shows how specialized this form of racing is,” Johnson said. “The commitment level required to make one of these cars go is quite high. As I get more comfortable with the car and learn the tracks and where to place the cars on the tracks, my performance level gets better.”

The American Legion has been a vital part of Johnson’s rookie season in INDYCAR as a major associate sponsor on the No. 48.

“It’s humbling,” Johnson said. “To steal a line from Chip Ganassi, The American Legion thanked us for being there and we should be thanking them. I’m honored to represent them. The men and women that have served our country, to defend our freedoms, it’s an honor to carry The American Legion on my race car and represent them.

“Their support, commitment and pride they have to be in the sport as well is unmatched. It really is an honor to have them on the car. Every Legionnaire that I meet is full of such pride with a big smile on their face. It’s really been cool.”

One of Johnson’s favorite moments came at the recent American Legion national convention in Phoenix. Johnson was giving rides to Legion members in a high-speed race car.

“One of them told me, ‘I survived a war. Stand on the gas and scare me.’ That was the ultimate moment,” Johnson said.

Now, it’s Johnson’s turn to hit the streets of Long Beach and compete in the race that started his dream as a youngster over 30 years ago.

Admittedly, Johnson has found it challenging to adapt from an outstanding career in NASCAR to the much different type of racing in INDYCAR, but when asked why he is doing this, his face brightens into a smile.

“It’s a popular question, but I always wanted to experience an open-wheel car and specifically always wanted to race an Indy car,” Johnson said. “When I was young and growing up on the West Coast, that was the arc that racers took, and INDYCAR was the sport to be in at the time.

“I’m very fortunate to be in the position where at 46, I’m still able to chase a childhood dream.”

 

Wyoming Legion Riders chapter deliver assistance to student veterans

After serving in the U.S. Navy from 2001-2006, Mario Carrasco started his secondary education at a community college. Unsure exactly what college path to follow, Carrasco said he didn’t want to start using his GI Bill benefits until he moved onto a four-year college.

That feeling is why Carrasco and fellow members of American Legion Riders Chapter 6 in Cheyenne, Wyo., started a scholarship program more than two years ago for veterans and veterans’ spouses at Laramie County Community College (LCCC).

In that time, the chapter of around 24 members has raised and donated more than $18,000 to LCCC, recently establishing a second scholarship that will benefit student veterans in certificate programs.

“The idea was if we can help the veterans keep out of their GI Bill until they actually transfer to a four-year university, it would be a really good thing for them,” said the 38-year-old Carrasco, who joined Chapter 6 around three years ago at the urging of past director Mark Pfenning and currently serves as chapter director. “When I got out of the service in 2006 and started going to college, that was the beginning of the post-9/11 era, when the first guys were getting out and trying to educate themselves and build some kind of career. The kind of support systems we have now … they just didn’t exist then. You really kind of had to find your own way.

“I remember that struggle, and I know what it was like. So to have this additional (scholarship) for these students now, I think it’s something fantastic. I wish it was there when I was going to college, and that’s how I know it’s making a difference. I know it would have helped me greatly.”

Money donated to LCCC’s scholarship endowment must reside within the endowment for one year. Carrasco believes one or two scholarships have been awarded via the chapter’s donations so far; the amount is determined by the total amount available through LCCC’s endowment.

A gun raffle and a safe rifle have funded the scholarships. The chapter was able to set up a table at Sportsman’s Warehouse in Cheyenne to sell the raffle tickets. “The manager there, he’s a fantastic guy and a veteran himself,” Carrasco said. “His name is Tim Francois, and he really makes this thing possible. He sets us up with a table in a prime location, and he’s always so helpful in getting us a great discount on whatever item we’re raffling off.”

The safe raffled funded what Carrasco said is a sometimes forgotten path for those planning a career.

“What’s important about that second scholarship is that it’s only going to programs that result in a certification or license of some sort: the trades, vocational,” he said. “A lot of good careers … they’re going to be on the trades side. You can have a pretty decent life by pursuing a career like that. I think young people are starting to see that maybe a direct route to college isn’t always the best choice. Sometimes getting yourself a license or vocation is going to be the new way to go.”

California Legionnaires get briefing on Legion Racing efforts

A valuable part of The American Legion’s involvement in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES with Jimmie Johnson and Chip Ganassi Racing has been its weekend “outreach” dinners with local Legion members.

The most recent was held at Chip Ganassi Racing’s Hospitality motorhome on Saturday night, Sept. 18, at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca as part of the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey.

Key members of the California American Legion, including Department Commander Autrey James and Department Adjutant Barbara Lombrano, attended the event, along with a collection of Legion members from throughout the state of California.

American Legion Chief Marketing Officer Dean Kessel explained the key components of The American Legion’s involvement with Johnson and Chip Ganassi Racing. The guest speaker was Earl Barban, who serves as Johnson’s “spotter” during the races but also drives and tends the motorhome that Johnson and his family use during race weekends.

“This is a big initiative for The American Legion, and one that we have never done at this kind of level before,” Kessel said. “It’s a big commitment not only in money, but in resources. From the Legion’s perspective, we’ve had an amazing year. We’ve partnered with Chip and his team, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Kanaan, and they have done a great job of extending our voice and amplifying it.

“There are a tremendous number of veterans and military that are involved in motorsports or fans of motorsports. Our mission with this program is very simple and that is drive membership and create awareness.”

Kessel said that effort includes looking at both the past and future. “The American Legion is 102 years old, and the challenge now for our organization is how do you take all of this history and relevance that we have in the organization and make it relevant for our next generation of veterans?” he said. “We tackle the biggest problems facing veterans. The GI Bill and what we did for Agent Orange are examples.”

The biggest issue now involving military veterans is reducing veteran suicide. It’s an issue The American Legion is prepared to fight and make a difference in reducing veteran suicide. And Chip Ganassi’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES team is helping create that awareness through its sponsorship with The American Legion.

“We have platforms, programs, people to talk about it, we have really smart people in Indianapolis and in here in California and we are prepared to tackle this issue,” Kessel said. “We are going to change the conversation to saving veterans, even if it’s one a day because the other number will come down. This is a way to amplify our voice.”

Barban has been worked with Johnson for much of his career when the driver was one of NASCAR’s all-time greats, winning seven NASCAR Cup Series championships at Hendrick Motorsports. Barban is a former member of the Marine Corps Reserves from the St. Louis area. He began his career building show cars for Team Penske.

“I was floundering around outside of that, and when I walked into the race shop, I realized this is what I needed to do,” Barban recalled. “I started working at Penske as truck driver, gas man, jack man then lead mechanic.

“When you are fit and young you can jack up the car and gas the car and jump under the car. But as you get older, it’s easier for people to push the radio button and say ‘clear.’”

Barban has worked with such NASCAR drivers as Johnson, former Cup Series champion Rusty Wallace and current Cup champion Chase Elliott throughout his career. Johnson asked Barban to join him as the seven-time Cup Series champion joined INDYCAR this season.

“Jimmie had asked my wife and I to work for him a number of times, and this is my eighth month working in INDYCAR,” Barban said. “It was a really big honor. It’s been a fabulous ride and an honor to be involved and have The American Legion as a sponsor.

“You have such a tremendous mission of helping veterans, which is dear to me as a former military member, and my father, who is an American Legion member. It is nice and humbling what you do for veterans and The American Legion members.”

Barban described the differences in spotting for a NASCAR driver and the style that is used in INDYCAR. “They want us to talk more and tell them about lines and where they can drive in NASCAR more so than in INDYCAR,” he said. “They are wigged out, out there and have all kinds of things to keep track of, such as fuel savings and power turbo boost. There is so much going on out there, so you have to reassure them they are doing well.

“If you look at Jimmie Johnson’s statistics, these cars are ridiculous how much harder they are to drive. My guy wins seven Cup championships and 83 wins, but we are getting so close with so much improvement. We are disappointed the season is coming to an end, but he is going to be so much better next year.”

Barban admitted when he started racing, he didn’t know much about Indycars. But he started to watch the series about three or four years ago.

“This is a great series,” Barban said. “I did NASCAR for 34 years and this is civilized racing over here. This is a great series. I am now a huge fan of INDYCAR. This is where my passion is now and a fabulous series. It is growing so much – by leaps and bounds.”

Barban revealed that Johnson cooks his own breakfasts. Barban’s wife will prepare lunch and dinner for the family in the motorhome. “His day is 12 hours a day working with the team and trying to get better,” he said. “He is absorbing as much as he can.”

‘We don’t want it to be forgotten’

Formal American Legion meeting normally include a reference to U.S. servicemembers either consider prisoners of war or missing in action, as noted in Resolution 288.

And they should, says Atlantic Beach, Fla., Post 316 Commander Denny Luke. But the American Legion Rider also believes the POW/MIA issue needs to be shared outside of The American Legion community as often as possible.

That’s why Luke helped organize the Florida American Legion Riders’ first POW/MIA Remembrance Ride on Sept. 18, one day after National POW/MIA Recognition Day. Around 160 motorcycles and more than 200 participants took part in the ride.

Referencing the POW/MIA table and flag “is kind of like preaching to the choir,” Luke said. “But a lot of the general public doesn’t even know there’s a national POW/MIA Recognition Day. So I said ‘let’s take it out into the streets and just try to get it publicized.’ So there’s what we did.”

Two years ago during a state ALR leadership meeting, it was discussed riding to Andersonville, the former site of the Camp Sumter military prison – one of the largest Confederate military prisons during the Civil War – to observe POW/MIA Recognition Day. At that time Luke pointed out that a POW/MIA memorial was being built at the former Naval Air Station Cecil Field in Jacksonville, so the decision was made to ride there instead.

“I stood up and said ‘why do we want to go out of state when we can stay in-state and promote the ride for the state of Florida,’” said Luke, who previously served as Florida’s District 5 ALR chairman. “The response was overwhelming. Everyone there said ‘absolutely.’”

The pandemic pushed the ride back to 2021; planning started around nine months ago and included promoting the ride via social media, traditional media and by reaching out to department districts throughout the state; and working with local law enforcement and staff at the National POW/MIA Memorial & Museum.

Costs were covered by the Department of Florida’s ALR, but Department ALR Chairman Jim Wineland credited Luke with making the ride the success it was. “(Luke) gets 99 percent of the credit,” he said. “He’s the one that went out and beat all the bushes. He’s the one that jumped over the political fences to get this all together.”

The ride was able to coincide with Jacksonville’s POW/MIA ceremony and started at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Wall, traveling over the city’s seven bridges and crossing the St. Johns River before ending at the National POW/MIA Memorial near the Chapel of the High Speed Pass at the former Cecil Field.

Wineland said the goal of the ride was to keep the POW/MIA issue in the minds of the nation. “We don’t want it to get lost. We don’t it to be forgotten,” he said. “The only way you can keep it going is to keep it in front of people. We figured this was the best way to do it.

“There are a lot of people out there who don’t have closure with one of their relatives. We can just never forget what this all means.”

Hundreds of photos and videos of the ride were shared on social media. Click here to watch a video of the ride and here to see more photos.

“We had a wonderful event. Everyone had a good time,” Luke said. “Next year we hope to get it publicized a little bit more and double our attendance. We want to make this a premiere Southeast USA event.”

Florida Legion post to welcome home Afghanistan veterans

Knowing U.S. troops were to completely leave Afghanistan in September, Florida Legionnaire Bob Watson wanted to do something to thank those veterans who’d served there during the War on Terror. But after watching events unfold as the U.S. presence dwindled – including the loss of 13 U.S. servicemembers in a suicide attach at the Kabul airport – Newberry American Legion Post 149’s “Welcome Home Afghanistan Veterans” event has taken on an even bigger meaning.

Post 149 is putting on a parade and expo for Afghanistan veterans – and any other U.S. veterans wishing to attend – on Sept. 25 in Newberry. And an event that was originally supposed to take place at the post has been moved to a 7,000-square-foot wedding venue because of the outpouring of support from sponsors and vendors who want to participate.

“A lot of us Vietnam veterans, when we got home we weren’t treated that well, and resources weren’t available,” said Watson, who joined Post 149 around a year ago and is serving as the event coordinator. “So a couple months ago I said ‘these guys and gals coming home, they need to have something.’ So we put together the resources for this program.”

A parade will take place Saturday morning, prior to an opening ceremony and expo at Clark Plantation. The expo will include information booths on veteran benefits, counseling, employment and housing. Also on the schedule is a car show, a silent auction and raffle, a mobile blood donation center, live music, food vendors, and a bounce house, face painting and balloon artist for children.

“We were just going to have a parade in Newberry. And it just started to grow,” Watson said. “And then we were going to have it at (Post 149), and we outgrew that. Everyone we talked to (about participating) never said no. Everyone was saying ‘what can we do to help?’ And I’m still getting calls.”

Watson said the outpouring of support for the event shows “that people care about the veterans. Everyone’s saying ‘we want to help the vets.’ And being a vet myself, I’m very happy and pleased we’re getting the resources and people coming to help.”

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