It was cold and the rain was pounding, not the gentle faucet drip we usually get in NW Washington but the “you better keep your eyes on the road and slow down” type. Despite the rain, my eyes drifted to the right where men and woman dressed in black leather were standing in a long line. They were all soaked, some grimaced in the cold but most smiled as they passed brown cardboard boxes down the human conveyer belt from one callused hand to the next. A few of the men were dauntingly huge, NFL lineman size and combined with the patch laden black leather jackets and Harleys in the parking lot they looked like they could do some damage. I circled the block and returned for a closer look.
I eased into the parking lot slowly to avoid knocking over one of their chromed and polished art pieces. The bikers were too busy for me to bother them with questions so I just poked around in the rain with my camera. On one of the woman’s’ jackets was a patch that read “In Memory Of John Fassett”, on a fellas jacket was a silhouette of the World Trade Center and the words, “Never Forget”. But stitched on the back of every jacket was a large American bald eagle and the words, “American Legion Riders”.
Over the years I’ve been told, more than once, that “The American Legion is just a bunch of old rednecks that get drunk and tell war stories.” As I think back on those conversations I realize the people that spoke with such authority had never been members of The American Legion, in fact, they had not even served in the military and there is an excellent chance they had never seen the inside of an American Legion Post. Of course I don’t deny that if you walked into a bar at an American Legion Post you might find a drunk. Bars are where drunks are found. I have seen drunks in just about every bar I’ve entered and most of those bars were white collar establishments stuffed with college educated professionals.
So who are the “American Legion Riders” and what does The American Legion do? The American Legion was founded in 1919 to help veterans returning from WWI. Wars have been called different things since then, i.e. conflicts, but returning veterans still need help and The American Legion continues to help them. The riders are a segment of American Legion members who like to ride motorcycles, they escort troops leaving on deployments and welcome them back when they return. They ride to honor fallen military men and women and to shield families from protesters who shout despicable things about the fallen service man or woman as their parents and loved ones attempt to give them a proper burial.
The American Legion Riders have also raised millions of dollars in scholarship money for the children of veterans, for assistance to wounded warriors, sports programs for local youth and many other community projects for those with and without ties to the military. What I witnessed in a drenching rain was the riders delivering toys to the Marine Corps “Toys For Tots” program.
One of the most impressive things about The American Legion is that their work is all done by volunteers and the money they collect goes to the people they serve not to CEO’s and administrators. By contrast, the CEO’s of the Red Cross, The United Way and March of Dimes are each paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year plus substantial benefits, UNICEF and Goodwill CEO’s are paid in the millions. For each dollar given to UNICEF or the March of Dimes only five to ten cents actually goes to the needy.
The National Commander of The American Legion is paid nothing and all the money donated goes to help Veterans, their families and local youth. It was good to finally see what The American Legion members do and it was done in a pouring rain, not in a bar.