National American Legion Commander's Nisswa visit means a lot to rural post
Nisswa American Legion Post 627 wanted the American Legion National Commander's visit to be as memorable to him as it was to them.
It was a special night for the Nisswa American Legion Wednesday, April 7, as legion members and officers welcomed American Legion National Commander James W. “Bill” Oxford to Post No. 627.
Oxford, of North Carolina, made the stop in Nisswa as part of the National Commander’s Tour of Minnesota. He spoke on issues of importance to Minnesota veterans to a full house at the Legion.
“Everybody was extremely honored and humbled to be able to host the National Commander,” Nisswa Post No. 627 Commander Susan Edwards said. “We are a small post (with 263 members) in a rural community and to have someone of this magnitude here is just amazing.”
Edwards said she contacted the American Legion Minnesota Commander Mark Dvorak last summer when she heard the national commander was planning a 2021 tour in Minnesota and told him the Nisswa post would love to host him. When they learned he would make a Nisswa stop, Edwards said everyone went into overdrive.
“We wanted to make sure that it was not only memorable for us, but memorable for him,” she said. “We wanted it to be very Legion, very formal and very dignified and we wanted everybody to feel safe and comfortable, while enjoying the evening.”
Edwards had nothing but praise for Oxford.
“He’s an extremely charming, personable southern gentleman,” she said. “He really is a lovely man.”
The event began after a formal dinner, with a prayer, a moment of silence and the Pledge of Allegiance.
American Legion National Executive Committee Representative Bill Barbknecht of Underwood Post No. 489 introduced Oxford. Oxford and Barbknecht wore red Legion caps, as red stands for national members. White caps stand for department members; blue with white tops stand for district members; black is for county-level officers; and blue is for post members.
Oxford said the pandemic impacted their traveling schedule and the Legion canceled its children and youth programs, including their junior shooting program. But the Legion also started other programs during the pandemic, such as offering drive-thru meals, delivering groceries and prescriptions, and hosting blood drives and virtual job fairs.
During the pandemic, Legion posts around the country were impacted as families financially struggled and outreach efforts were limited. The American Legion National Executive Committee created a program called Mission Blue Post Assistance Program providing grant money to eligible Legion posts to help with the financial burden. Oxford said the Legion posts used the grant money for rent, mortgage, utilities and to pay staff.
Oxford spoke about how membership has decreased since the ‘40s. Currently there are about 1.7 million members in more than 13,000 posts worldwide. He said membership has gone down as World War I and World War II veterans die. However, Oxford said there are a lot of veterans who fought in the Vietnam War and the wars in Iran and Afghanistan who can be members.
“Membership is crucial to who we are and what we need to do. We need to think about the future of this organization,” Oxford said. “ ... We are the future of this organization. Are we going to turn over an organization that's slowly drifting away, or are we gonna leave an organization that's thriving and developing? ... Enthusiasts are excited about creating a brighter future for us and our country.”
Oxford said the other topic he needed to address is the future of the country. He said the American Legion made an impact on about 200,000 young people in 2019 with its youth programs and he’d like to increase that number. He said members need to make sure the programs stick around and flourish. He talked about how American Legion programs have helped develop youths and turn them into leaders of the country.
“We've got to make sure those programs don't diminish,” he said. “We got to make sure they prosper and flourish ... as we continue to produce and develop the leaders of this country. We've got to make sure we don't let those programs get away from us.”
Oxford also talked about veteran suicides. He said one of the American Legion’s missions is to continue to help veterans with suicide prevention and education. He said 6 out of 20 veterans a day suffering suicidal thoughts seek help from the Veterans Administration. He wants to encourage the other 14 veterans a day to seek help in getting services if they need them.
Suicide among veterans is a topic hitting close to home for Vicki Randall of Baxter, who was sitting at a table in the front row at Wednesday’s event. Her 28-year-old veteran son Sgt. Cody Randall died by suicide April 3, 2020.
Cody Randall, a 2010 Brainerd High School graduate, was a non-commissioned officer in the Army and was stationed in Anchorage, Alaska. Cody wanted to have a career in the Army and get involved in the space program, but that never happened as he struggled with mental health issues.
“We were all so unaware of his mental health issues,” Randall wrote on her Facebook page last August before his funeral service. “There were little to no signs. He was the one who always tried to make people laugh and wanted everyone around him, happy, and yet, he was the one who lacked self-esteem and was hurting. His confidence around people was admirable, and yet he really lacked confidence in himself. He was accomplished in many areas in his life and yet he never felt worthy. What people saw on the surface, was not who he was. There was a terrible storm brewing inside of him. He was so incredibly handsome, had the most amazing blue eyes and the smile that lit up a room, but he was hurting. This caused him to do things he would immediately regret. But it was like he could not control his actions and this eventually led to him ending his life.”
Vicki Randall said when her son was struggling he did seek help from a counselor through the Army and then he began seeing a therapist outside of the Army.
“But then COVID shut everything down and the rest is history,” Vicki Randall said. “He had three sessions with a therapist and then it was shut down and it was right after that ... he committed suicide.”
Randall wasn’t able to have her son’s funeral services for five months after his death because of COVID-19. The family was finally able to have his funeral at the Eagle’s Healing Nest in Sauk Centre, a nonprofit organization seeking to meet the needs of veterans, service members and their families who suffer from the invisible wounds of war.
Randall is a supporter of the Eagle’s Healing Nest and said it helped her greatly.
During Oxford's presentation he also encouraged people to participate in the 100 Miles for Hope, a wellness program that raises funds for the American Legion Veterans & Children Foundation. Oxford said the program began to get people outside, get some exercise and to lose weight. The program became successful and last year there were about 5,000 participants who raised about $130,000 for the foundation. This year, the challenge kicked off last week and they hope to have 10,000 participants.
When the program was done, Mitch Myers of Nisswa, who is a member of the Sons of The American Legion in Nisswa, sang “God Bless the USA” as everyone stood and held hands.
Edwards presented a $500 check on behalf of Post No. 627 to the National Commander's Project, which raises funds for the American Legion's Veterans and Children Foundation. Edwards also presented Oxford with a quilt.
Auxiliary Unit No. 627 President Lynn Hall presented a $200 check to the National Commander's Project.
Minnesota's representative on the National Executive Committee, Bill Barbknecht from Underwood Post No. 489, presented a $200 check from Post No. 489 to the National Commander's Project.
Oxford presented veteran James J. Deyo Sr. with a certificate signifying 70 continuous years of membership in The American Legion. Deyo is a 71-year member, but COVID-19 prevented him from receiving the certificate last year.
JENNIFER KRAUS may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 218-855-5851. Follow me at www.twitter.com/jennewsgirl on Twitter.