Leroy Hill is a veteran, and the most famous name associated with Gardner’s American Legion Post No. 19. The post is named in honor of Hill, the community’s first World War I casualty.
The veterans who belong to the local American Legion are still doing good works in his name more than 94 years after his death.
The American Legion is a veterans’ service organization, sanctioned by the U.S. Congress. Gardner’s organization is known as Post 19 and the group is one of the only local civic organizations to maintain and own its own building. Groups can rent a portion of the Legion Hall for events. The separate hall includes a kitchen, disabled-accessible bathrooms and seats 130. Legion members occasionally open it to the public to host dinners and Mountain Oyster feeds.
The private club, or bar, is only open to members of the Legion and its sister organizations.
That can be a good and bad thing, Jeff Barber, the Legion’s finance officer said.
The group always has a place to gather, but because the Post includes a bar, there are members who join at first, to simply have a seat at the bar. Though the club boasts more than 180 members, there are less than 20 who are really active.
“We just have to figure out what is their trigger to get them off their barstool, so to speak,” Barber said. “That’s what’s hard.”
There’s plenty to keep the members involved. Legion members in Gardner do a variety of community service projects as well as support veteran causes and patriotic events.
Statewide, the group sponsors Boys State, a week long camp of sorts at a state university that teaches juniors in high school about government from the local to the state level. The local group sends boys to the event each year. (The Legion Auxiliary hosts a similar project, Girls State.)
Legion members also send Gardner Edgerton High School students to Cadet Law, a week long law enforcement-type camp hosted by the Kansas State Troopers.
“At Cadet Law, they go and learn about the police,” Barber explained. “They basically go to boot camp for a week. They go to the firing range and drive police cars.”
GEHS students interested in learning about Boys State, Girls State or Cadet Law can find information about the programs in the high school counseling office.
Although Legion members do several youth-oriented projects, they’re primary function is as a veterans service organization. Its members are veterans, who served during times of conflict.
Barber said that’s been a cause of confusion, because all veterans aren’t eligible to join.
“Pretty much any military since August 1990 to the present is eligible,” Barber said. “That’s made several people upset. They fell between some of the dates. That makes them no less of a veteran.”
However, a change to the organization’s bylaws to allow all military veterans to join would require an act of Congress.
As a veteran service organization, one of the Legion’s responsibilities includes providing a Color Guard, and a firing squad and playing ‘Taps’ at the funerals of local veterans.
Post 19 is one of only a handful of Legions that utilizes Springfield 1903 rifles for some funerals. The guns are government issued. For the last year, however, the Legion has used its own semi-automatic M-4s at funerals.
“They are just like what they use in combat today,” Barber said. “The Springfields are on loan from the government. They can come take those away at any time.”
That also keeps members hopping. Two years ago, the group provided the honors at three local funerals. Last year, it was five.
“This year, we’ve already had 14,” Barber said.
Like many civic organizations, the local Legion struggles to recruit members. Although Kansas boasts one of the largest Legion memberships in the country, Barber explained that many members are World War II veterans and Vietnam veterans.
That poses a demographics problem for the organization. State level Legion officials reported that by 2021, the group will be die because WWII and Vietnam veterans will be gone.
“I think the vets that have been fighting for the last 10 to a dozen years are so burnt out from the military that they want nothing to do with us,” Barber said.
But that will change.
Barber said he recalls his uncles encouraging him to join the Legion when he was still a member of the U.S. Army. He’s been a member for 17 years, the first five in Holland, Mich. But he’s only been a truly active member spending several hours per week on Legion projects for the past three or four years.
“After you’re out (of the military) for a little while, you start to miss the camaraderie of it,” Barber said.
Now one of his biggest goals is to get more veterans involved in the organization, but he understands it’s difficult to find the time.
“Guys are deployed for a year or two and then guys are trying to spend time with their families when they get back,” Barber said. “And then it’s hard to find time to give back to the community.”
But it’s worth it.
“I wanted to give back to my community,” he explained. “And I wouldn’t want to join any other civic organization. It’s that prior military service and that camaraderie and spirit de corps that I’ve built with brothers in arms in the past.”
For more information about the local organization, visit www.kslegion19.org.
There are three other organizations under the umbrella of the American Legion – the American Legion Auxiliary, Riders and Sons of the American Legion. Those groups will be featured in the Gardner News’ series about local civic groups. If you would like to have your organization featured, please contact Danedri Thompson at (913)856-7615 or email [email protected]