Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part story. Part one was printed in Lodi Living on July 27.
From the end of World War I until after the Korean War, the American Legion was a community hub for veterans and their families. Members and their families gathered for picnics and dances, to organize volunteer efforts for the community, or just to socialize.
In the 1960s, Lodi Post 22 had more than 600 members. That number is smaller today, but those members are no less enthusiastic about the organization than their predecessors.
Ken Kramlich jumped to join the moment he was eligible.
“Back in those days, they advertised it in the paper,” he said.
Kramlich served from 1960 to 1964, but when Congress first recognized Vietnam-era veterans, they started with 1967. When they finally rolled the start back to 1961, Kramlich was quick to become a Legionnaire.
Over the past 36 years, he has served as Lodi Post 22’s past commander and as a district, area and state commander. He’s now a year into a two-year term on the National Executive Committee.
“It’s something I believe in — what they do and to help my fellow brothers,” he said.
For Ann Scholl, president of Lodi’s American Legion Auxiliary chapter, it was a family affair.
“My mom was really active,” she said. “My dad was in World War II.”
They were already members when they attended the annual picnic in July 1976 and won a car. They paid it back and then some by becoming much more active in the Legion, and passing that spirit of service on to their daughter.
But like many older organizations, membership in the Legion has dwindled in recent years. Post 22 members are looking to change that.
The Legion was founded 100 years ago in the tradition of groups like the Grand Army of the Republic, by veterans of World War I. Lodi’s Post 22 formed just months after the national organization in the fall of 1919 with 144 members. It quickly became an integral — and massive — part of the community. The Legion even helped to turn Micke Grove into the park it is today.
Post 22 members are drumming up ways to revive that early enthusiasm for the Legion.
“Connecting with new veterans is tough,” said Michael Bennett, the past commander for the post.
As they return from Iraq, Afghanistan or other overseas postings, many veterans turn their focus to their careers or family. Their free time is limited — especially now, when in most families, both parents must work to stay afloat — and they spend it in other ways.
That trend isn’t new. Vietnam-era veterans were also slow to join, though many are turning to the Legion now as members or volunteers.
Bennett himself didn’t join until six years ago.
“I was one of those hard heads,” he said.
Members hope younger veterans will reach out and tell them what they need and want.
For example, there has not been a need for child care at meetings yet, but the Legion would be willing to work on that if parents wanted to begin attending, Bennett said.
For years, the American Legion sponsored a baseball team. A lot of young people would join for the chance to hone their skills on the field, Kramlich said.
“We were really big in baseball,” he said.
Plenty of top MLB players — including Barry Bonds, Madison Bumgarner and Jim Palmer — got their starts in the Legion baseball league.
Post 22 would love to revive their baseball team, enter a new sport like soccer, host hunter training courses — pretty much anything members want, Bennett said.
The Lodi chapter of the American Legion Riders has helped to pull in younger veterans, Scholl said. Younger members are drawn more to events like marathons, she said. Every year, the Riders organize the American Legion Legacy Run, a cross-country ride to raise money for the children of fallen veterans.
The Riders also honor fallen military men and women with their rides, and protect military funerals from people who might try to disrupt them.
The goal is to bring in new veterans, not just to keep the Lodi post going, but also to connect them to important services like health care or counseling. Or even just give them a place where they can shoot the breeze or talk about the hard stuff with people who get it.
“That’s the thing about the Legion,” Kramlich said. “They’ll come in and talk about things they wouldn’t talk about to anybody else.”
He recalled visiting a nursing home where 22 veterans were living. He and other Legion members were there to deliver Christmas gifts, and the nursing home gave the group a room to themselves. It wasn’t long before the vets were reminiscing — sometimes laughing and sometimes crying, Kramlich said.
“Everyone was kind of telling a little bit of their war stories,” he said.
One of the men shared with Kramlich that he’d been on one of the tanks that liberated Auschwitz at the end of World War II.
“He had never told anybody,” Kramlich said. His own family didn’t know.
A lot of veterans have post-traumatic stress, but won’t talk about it with anyone except other veterans, Kramlich said.
That’s one of the services the Legion offers — counselors who are veterans themselves, along with a place to just spend time with other veterans.
“We don’t toot our horn enough that we help these veterans out,” he said.
Supporting veterans in Lodi and beyond
At the national level — with the help of members at posts like Lodi Post 22 — the American Legion works with the Department of Veterans Affairs to raise awareness about issues facing the country’s veterans.
The Operation Comfort Warriors program supports recovering wounded veterans and their families. Legion volunteers provide “comfort items” to help make hospital rooms feel more like home.
“We provide rides to medical appointments,” Adjutant Bob Gross added.
The American Legion as a whole has taken on the task of advocating for veterans with the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA has improved greatly in recent years, he said.
The Legion also helps veterans who are down and out get back on their feet, he said.
The organization helped guide the G.I. Bill, as well as the Flag Code. On request, they attend veterans’ funerals — whether they are members or not — and present the colors.
“It’s a personal service from veteran to veteran,” Bennett said.
Gross often plays “Taps” on the bugle, though Post 22 recently got an electric bugle courtesy of Bob Handel, who passed away earlier this month.
Like the main Legion, the Auxiliary is devoted to supporting veterans. It is open to immediate family members of veterans. The Auxiliary was originally chartered in May 1922 for mothers, wives, daughters and sisters, but these days, husbands are welcome to join as well, Scholl said.
The Lodi chapter raises funds to bring gifts to veterans hospitalized in Livermore, along with local veterans. They also raise money for the veterans at the VA hospital so that they can purchase Christmas gifts for their family members each year.
“We’re always backing the Legion up, helping out the veterans,” Scholl said.
Right now, auxiliaries all over the state are raising funds to create a shelter for women veterans, who don’t have a resource like that. The Legion and Auxiliary help other homeless veterans.
And at this year’s Lodi Grape Festival, the Auxiliary will have a table in the place setting competition honoring prisoners of war and those missing in action.
Their motto is “Service, Not Self,” Scholl said.
Services offered by the American Legion
The Legion’s main purpose is to support veterans, but they’re also a community service organization much like the Kiwanis or Rotary clubs.
“Community service is at the very heart of the American Legion’s core beliefs,” the organization writes on its website.
Across the U.S., members of the Legion frequently volunteer with the Department of Veterans Affairs or groups like Disabled American Veterans. They also run blood drives, organize sporting events (both for able-bodied and disabled athletes), sponsor Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, host creative arts events and more.
In Lodi, Legion and Auxiliary members can be found helping at Grace and Mercy Charitable Foundation or the LOEL Senior Center, sitting on the Committee on Homelessness, sponsoring Scout troops, sending students from local high schools to Boys and Girls State, and helping other local nonprofit organizations with events and fundraisers.
Many members visit local elementary and high schools to share their experiences and teach students about topics from history to flag etiquette.
The entire Lodi community is invited to come out for the American Legion Crab Feed every February, Oktoberfest each fall, and an omelet breakfast on the third Sunday of every month. American Legion Hall hosts concerts such as last year’s visit by Pat Yankee, or Cell Block 7’s monthly jazz performances.
“We help the community in a lot of different ways,” said Martin Jones, former adjutant for Post 22.
The Legion also rents space to community groups including Lodi Musical Theater and the International Ballet Theatre Institute for rehearsals and classes. It’s the frequent site of weddings, class reunions and other community events.
A lot of the current drive to renovate American Legion Hall is so that it return to its roots as a true community center. The hall is available to rent for “very affordable” rates to local community groups as well as for weddings and similar events.
“Everybody uses this building,” Jones said. It was even once included in the City of Lodi’s disaster plan, thanks to its large kitchen, bathrooms and space.
Volunteers recently gathered to put down new flooring and re-paint the building’s entryway. Next on the list are a new roof and some improvements to make the building more accessible to those with disabilities. But there are a lot of other items on the “wish list” once those are completed.
“It’s hard to pick and choose,” Jones said.
The Legion also raises millions of dollars each year at the local, state and national level for veterans in need and to provide scholarships to college students.
“It’s just a good organization all around — not just for veterans, because we help out other people,” Kramlich said.