The American Legion is about to celebrate its first century. Locally, the Two Harbors based Post 109 is also celebrating 100 years.
Commander James Latvala and Veterans Service Officer N.V. "Vince" Sando detailed the Legion's first 100 years, the most recent membership change due to the LEGION (Let Everyone Get Involved in Opportunities for National Service) Act passed by Congress and what the next 100 years may bring.
Started with camaraderie, growing through the years
The American Legion formed in 1919. In fact, the first American Legion Convention was held in Minneapolis from Nov. 10-12, 1919. Shortly after that, the local Post 109 was formed by World War I veterans.
"A lot of it was camaraderie of war veterans at first," Latvala said. "Just to get together and I think they wanted to help their fellow veterans with any help they may have needed."
Through the next 100 years, the American Legion, locally and nationally, pushed for the formation of the U.S. Veterans Administration, created and maintained the flag code, organized youth athletic and gun safety programs, advocated for those affected by Agent Orange and pushed for the creation of the G.I. Bill and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Locally, Latvala remembers the youth baseball program, teaching flag education classes, gun safety classes. The local post also gives to numerous causes every month and opens its doors to community events and classes.
"I could go on and on," Latvala said. "We've been a staple in this community for many years and we have a strong cadre of very involved members."
The American Legion is about to undergo a major change. In July, President Trump signed the LEGION Act, which changes the American Legion's eligibility dates to now be open to all who served during WWI and all veterans since Dec. 7, 1941, with at least one day of honorable federal service. Veterans who were honorably discharged, but whose service did not fall into the previous defined war eras, may now join.
"It used to be where a veteran would serve his country and did everything right but he wasn’t within a specific timeline. There were a couple of blackout areas where there were many, many veterans who couldn’t join," Latvala said.
“Once those posts, for lack of support, go away, that community is diminished. And it will never go back.”
Latvala said the opening of registration requirements will hopefully help open up a huge database of potential members, a boon considering membership has fluctuated over the years.
"Back when I was commander here 18 years ago, we had 478 members," Latvala said. "Now it's half that due to losing WWII and Korean vets and it's difficult to get younger members involved."
Sando said the loss of members has also impacted the Legion's honor guard. Ideally, basic military honors would be conducted by a group of 10 honor guard members: a commander, seven rifles and two flag bearers.
"We've done it with as few as four to five. Last fall, I did one with three: one rifle, one flag and me on the bugle and commanding," Sando said.
Meanwhile, the demand for funeral honors continues to rise with the loss of WWII and Korean vets. The guard travels between Knife River to Little Marais for funerals, but mostly stays within Two Harbors and Silver Bay. Sando said he's looking for more volunteers willing to volunteer an hour or two of their time a month to join the guard.
"The American Legion has been and will always be an important fixture in a smaller community and in Minnesota," Sando said. "Once those posts, for lack of support, go away, that community is diminished. And it will never go back."
Latvala encouraged residents to keep their eyes open for the Veterans Day services, a 100-year celebration open house and a flag retirement program in the next few months. Those interested in joining the Legion due to the new eligibility requirements can contact the Legion in person or by calling 218-830-1050.