American Legion Post gets new home

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Tuesday, Sept. 11, was an extremely important day for American Legion Post 81.

Mike Bush-News-Bulletin photo: American Legion Riders and their bikes outside the new Post 81 headquarters on Baca Avenue in Belen on Monday.

In the afternoon, the legionnaire veterans happily celebrated their move into a new headquarters building on Baca Avenue in Belen. But by that evening, the mood had muted to a somber commemoration of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with American Legion Riders — motorcyclists — at the forefront of a procession from the Heart of Belen Plaza to the 9/11 Memorial Park.

The veterans were led by Joel Brown, state vice president of the riders, and Roger Sisneros, president of Chapter 25 in Belen. Sisneros and the local riders were also busy preparing for a ceremony last Saturday when they received a new American Legion charter. The charter was issued at the new headquarters by Brad Schroenghamer, the state president, Sisneros said.

The new headquarters is airy, spacious and solid. It contains reminders of the legionnaires’ sacrifices and service rendered to the nation, but also offers members a place just to hang out and talk.

Post 81 leaders said they hope their building will attract a new generation of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many vets aren’t even aware that an American Legion post exists in Belen.

Some may not even know what the American Legion is or does, the leaders said.

They described the new building alternately as a den, a man-cave and a place to get together to watch an NFL game.

“Our old building on Becker Avenue was falling down,” said Barbara Bowman, the post’s commander.

The Legion had been in the century-old building for about five years. It is owned by Claudine Montano, the proprietor of the Becker Street Pub. Montano let the veterans use the building “for just about nothing,” Bowman said. “We’re very grateful to her.”

Chapters of the American Legion Riders are known from coast to coast for their charitable work, which has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for local children’s hospitals, schools, veterans homes, severely wounded service members and scholarships.

For the past half-dozen years, Riders nationwide have participated in the Legion Legacy Run to raise money for a scholarship fund for children of U.S. military personnel killed since Sept. 11, 2001.

Riders from Belen and 24 other chapters across New Mexico plan to embark later this month on the Legion’s Operation Wounded Warrior run. They will converge on Ft. Sam Houston’s Brooks Military Hospital in San Antonio to assist and otherwise lend their support to amputees, burn victims and those with brain injuries. Last year, 43 Riders made the trip.

“We’re just G.I.s who care,” Sisneros said.

The group is also raising $3 million to open a Fisher House, a home away from home at Kirtland Air Force Base for families of severely wounded service members. Fisher Houses provide a way for military families to be near loved ones at no cost during hospitalization for an injury or illness.

There is at least one Fisher House at every major military medical center in the United States. The program serves more than 17,000 families annually.

The American Legion was chartered by Congress in 1919 as a patriotic veterans organization. Its main focus is on service to veterans and members of the military.

Since its inception, the American Legion evolved from a group of war-weary World War I veterans into one of the most influential nonprofit groups in the United States. Today, with a membership of more than 2.4 million in 14,000 posts around the world, it is the nation’s largest veterans organization.

The American Legion has three main membership categories: Legionnaires, or actual veterans; the auxiliary, usually wives of servicemen; and S.A.L., Sons of the American Legion, which is open to sons, grandsons and nephews of veterans. The posts are organized into 55 departments, one each for the 50 states and District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, France, Mexico and the Philippines.

Over the years the Legion has influenced considerable social change in America, won untold benefits for veterans and produced important programs for young people.