One of Past National Commander James Oxford’s highest compliments includes the term, “Gentleman and a Scholar.”
He believes that phrase is fitting for The American Legion’s association with Chip Ganassi Racing and driver Jimmie Johnson in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
“To be associated with class organizations like the Ganassi team and Jimmie Johnson, they are gentlemen and scholars, and we are ecstatic to share this opportunity with them,” Oxford said earlier during the INDYCAR season.
At that time, the native of Lenoir, N.C., was in the final weeks of a unique two-year term as American Legion national commander. That wasn’t the original plan, but with the COVID-19 pandemic canceling many functions in 2020, it became a necessity.
“I was elected national commander in August 2019, and that is typically a one-year term,” Oxford said. “Because we had to cancel the convention last year, I was tasked with staying on an extra year. My term ended at Phoenix in September.
“It was a tremendous honor to lead the organization.”
It was during Oxford’s term as national commander that The American Legion was presented with an interesting and unique marketing relationship with Johnson and INDYCAR. Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion with Hendrick Motorsports, announced he was retiring from NASCAR competition after the 2020 season.
American Legion Chief Marketing Officer Dean Kessel previously had a long-term relationship with Johnson when Kessel was at Lowe’s. Kessel saw some tremendous marketing opportunities for The American Legion when Johnson decided to pursue a second career with Chip Ganassi Racing’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES team beginning in 2021.
“I’ve followed Jimmie’s career over his seven championships,” Oxford said. “When Dean proposed this joint association, it took a little bit of looking at, I’ll admit. But it was a good move for us. The things Chip Ganassi brings to the table, the things Jimmie Johnson adds, and his fan base are all things that can help us improve The American Legion brand and its visibility.
“I think we had an extremely successful year and look forward to many more years of this. Dean Kessel is a gem, and we are lucky to have him on our team.”
Key to the arrangement was Johnson and Ganassi helping to create awareness for The American Legion’s campaign to prevent veteran suicide.
“That’s part of what Chip and Jimmie are doing for us,” Oxford said. “They have done a lot of commercials for us. The brand recognition and name recognition create a positive impact on all of those programs as we continue to address veteran suicide.
“I’ve met Jimmie several times over the years, and he is just a gentleman and a scholar and a great representative of The American Legion.”
Oxford and his wife live in the foothills of North Carolina about 75 miles northwest of Charlotte. He began his military service in the Marine Corps in April 1967 and was deployed to Vietnam.
When he returned from Vietnam, Oxford left the Marine Corps and joined the North Carolina Army Guard and Reserves, where he completed nearly 35 years of military service.
His time in The American Legion is also unique. “I joined The American Legion twice,” Oxford said. “The first time was when I got out of the Marine Corps, I joined The Legion, but I was enjoying the parties and the Saturday nights that went on. That went on for a few years, then, I grew up, started raising a family and let my membership lapse.
“Going back to the mid-1980s, I went to an American Legion Baseball game strictly as a fan. I bumped into a guy that I had played baseball against in high school, he was a Silver Star winner and he asked me to help with The American Legion Baseball team. I went to an American Legion Baseball meeting, got involved with Legion Baseball and I’ve been part of The Legion ever since. Over the years, I’ve been a baseball, basketball, soccer, a little bit of football, referee, umpire, administrator involved with children’s youth activities almost in every aspect.
“I have held positions in my local posts as post commander, post adjutant, involved with the oratorical contests, been involved with baseball, all of those local post activities, I’ve held those positions.”
During his time as national commander, Oxford maintained his home in North Carolina and often commuted to the National Headquarters in Indianapolis, not far from the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“The travel schedule is pretty intense when you are the national commander,” Oxford said. “But with The American Legion headquarters in Indianapolis, with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500, why didn’t we think of this INDYCAR program before? It’s a great fit and all parties are going to benefit from it.
“I think it has been beneficial for all parties involved and would love to see it continue in the future. I’ve heard lots of comments from NASCAR fans talk about this is the first time they have watched INDYCAR racing, and they think it is pretty exciting. That is the positive impact our association is having.
“I was here for the Indianapolis 500 in May, and it was my first race here at Indianapolis, and boy, what a great show.”
Oxford cherishes his time spent as the national commander. He believes he left a positive mark during his tenure.
“Paul Dillard replaced me as national commander. He is a true gentleman and a scholar,” Oxford said. “The civilian society doesn’t realize the service, the sacrifices, the deployments, all the things you are exposed to. But the veteran understands the trials and tribulations. It’s a brotherhood and a fellowship that few can experience unless they join.
“We inherited a great organization, we didn’t mess it up, but I think we made a solid contribution and left the Legion family in a better position. If that is my legacy, my term was successful.”
The American Legion tribute to “The Greatest Legislation” will be part of events marking the dedication of a new home to the National Veterans Research Center at Syracuse University on Nov. 3.
The American Legion centennial museum exhibit that toured the country between 2017 and 2019 will once again help tell the story of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 and the organization’s role in bringing it to life. The exhibit will be on display during the dedication and celebration of the Daniel & Gayle D’Aniello building, home to the National Veterans Resource Center in Syracuse, N.Y.
The new facility at Syracuse University is home to the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF), Office of Veteran and Military Affairs, along with Army and Air Force ROTC, and represents the university’s commitment to cultivate and lead innovative academic, government and community collaborations that empower veterans. The IVMF received The American Legion’s prestigious Patriot Award in 2020.
The dedication ceremony will begin on Wednesday, Nov. 3, from 3-4:30 pm EDT. Registration is available online for both in person attendance and live-stream viewing is available here.
“The Greatest Legislation: An American Legion Salute to the GI Bill” will be on display from Nov. 1-14 at the Daniel & Gayle D’Aniello Building National Veterans Research Center.
Over a weeklong stretch in October, several events at historical sites and American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) cemeteries in France have honored the 100-year anniversary of the journey made by the Unknown Soldier to the Tomb prepared for him at Arlington National Cemetery.
There was American Legion involvement throughout the process, starting with Legionnaires helping guard the body as it headed for the coast and to the United States. As such, Post 1 in Paris dedicated itself to a presence in the proceedings as local ground support. According to Post Commander Bryan Schell, “For Paris Post 1, this centennial is important because our Legionnaires were present at the ceremony 100 years ago.”
Plans have been in the works since the spring of 2020. “Ginette Crosely, Paris Post 1 Auxiliary president, was the first person to speak with Gavin McIlvenna, president of the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I started to assist, and this was around when the pandemic first hit France. We worked with Gavin to help contact the different cities and associations to build support for the centennial.”
A centennial flag was taken in a procession to key locations at ABMC cemeteries, to be ritually raised and flown. Post 1 members were part of a “pilgrimage” group that included Gold Star Mothers, former guards at the Tomb, veterans and first responders, and others. “It was an unforgettable journey into the past while spending it with a group of patriotic individuals,” Schell commented. “The experience will be unforgettable for all of us.”
At Châlons-en-Champagne, where the Unknown Soldier was selected from a group of unidentified deceased, Schell said the city went all out for the anniversary. In addition to a parade, they “did a full recreation of the Hotel de Ville, filling it full of white roses and time-period American soldiers to re-enact what it was like 100 years ago.”
The French activities wrapped up Oct. 27 with a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Attention will now shift to events in the United States, culminating at Arlington around Veterans Day; see a list of local and national events here.
Former NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. has the utmost admiration for seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson switching gears to compete in INDYCAR with Chip Ganassi Racing.
“I think it’s honorable what he is trying to achieve,” Earnhardt told The American Legion in an exclusive interview recently. “It looks harder than hell. He has kept a smile on his face. Most people would have probably folded the tent, or given up, or stomped their foot in frustration.
“He keeps getting up, getting back on the horse, and going again. It’s admirable. Hopefully, it will turn out the way he wants it to.”
Earnhardt and Johnson often raced each other for victories on the track. They were teammates at Hendrick Motorsports from 2008 until Earnhardt retired after the 2017 season. Earnhardt began his Cup Series career in 2000 and Johnson was a Cup Series rookie at Hendrick Motorsports beginning in 2002.
They were part of a unique era of NASCAR racing. But when Johnson decided to retire from stock car racing following the 2020 season, it gave him the opportunity to compete in INDYCAR.
Earnhardt moved into the NBC Sports booth as part of the crew that covers NASCAR races in 2018. He remains close friends with Johnson and his family.
Johnson’s INDYCAR rookie season was a tremendous learning experience for the driver who achieved so much success in NASCAR, with seven Cup titles and 83 victories. He spent the first half of the season learning the car and trying to discover his limit of confidence in how far he could push it.
The second half of the season, Johnson showed progressive improvement in each successive race in the No. 48 Carvana/American Legion Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing.
At times, Johnson has struggled, but that only motivates him to improve.
“That’s OK,” Earnhardt said. “He has earned the right to fail at something. If he wants to race this and do this and he is enjoying himself, that is his prerogative. More power to him. You can’t win them all. He has found a tough challenge, and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.
“I’ve watched some of his races. It’s been more difficult than anyone expected for him, and it’s been difficult for him to find the pace. I’m glad he keeps coming back. I’m glad he hasn’t folded the tent. I’m glad he is going to keep going and figure it out. I’m a fan of his and I want to see him succeed. I don’t want to see him give up. I’m glad to see him show up every week – week after week – and try to make it work.”
Earnhardt admires the role Johnson has played as a spokesman for The American Legion, supporting the veteran suicide prevention program. Helping a greater cause is something that is part of Johnson’s character.
“I think that he is an incredible individual with a great heart,” Earnhardt said of Johnson. “I feel like that he puts everything behind everything he gets involved in and dives into it. Nothing surprises me when it comes to his character and class. He was an excellent champion for us in NASCAR. He was never involved in any controversy or anything off track.
“He was a great representative for us in NASCAR. He’ll be the same for INDYCAR and all the charitable initiatives that he is part of, especially with The American Legion.”
Johnson expects continued improvement in his second season as an NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2022. He is giving serious consideration to competing in the 106th Indianapolis 500 on the famed 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval, in addition to the street and road course races on the schedule.
“He’s not going to give up on making it happen on a road course,” Earnhardt said. “He doesn’t give up easily. I expect to see him continue to push to find the pace and comfort he is looking for on the road courses.
“But I would like to see him run the Indy 500, at least once, just so he can check that box in his career.”
Earnhardt also believes that oval racing in an Indy car may suit Johnson’s racing style. But there would also be dramatic differences between the slower, heavier stock car and the faster, sleeker Indy car.
“You would think so, but these cars are going to be a little different.,” Earnhardt said. “They will have different challenges. The air and the way they react behind each other, they are going to be a lot different. He’ll have plenty of support in coaching and understanding what is coming at him and how the cars will react in traffic.
“Listening to Kurt Busch’s comments when he ran the Indy 500 in 2014, he was surprised by some of the things that he faced that he didn’t face in a stock car in terms of traffic and the way the car handles in traffic. There will be some new things he will deal with that he has to learn. He won’t be able to rely on all of his instincts and stock car knowledge because it will do different things in the wind and turbulent air.
“We’ll see how it works out.”
Chartered in 1946, Tidewater American Legion Post 327 in Norfolk, Va., has built a strong community presence, one that proves to be mutually beneficial for both the post and the city.
In October, Post 327’s American Legion Family continued strengthening that relationship, while assisting local law-enforcement agencies in the process.
On Oct. 4, Post 327 Commander Roger Kelly presented the Norfolk County Sheriff’s Department with a donation of $12,000. Less than three weeks later, the post opened up its doors to members of the Norfolk Police Department, who also were presented with a check for $12,000.
“I truly believe that if you give back to the community, the community will give back to you,” Post 327 Adjutant Evan Glendinning said. “The community has always been a big supporter with The American Legion and everything that we do.
“We started up with our blood drive program again. This year we’re doing four, and next year we already have six scheduled. And a decent amount of the people that donate blood are actually non-members. So when we do stuff, we get a lot of support from the community. So when we (make donations), it helps get our name out there to promote The American Legion.”
The post is able to make the donations through its charitable gambling operation, as well as through additional fundraising efforts. It’s the third year the post has made the donations to the two law-enforcement agencies, the first time donating around $10,000. “A need arose, and we were able to fill that need,” said Kelly.
The money donated to the Norfolk County Sheriff’s Department was divided evenly among three of the department’s programs: to train and hire veterans, a camp for troubled youth, and to provide armor vests that are otherwise only issued for personnel serving warrants.
The Norfolk Police Department donation will go toward assisting the department’s various community outreach programs. On both Twitter and Facebook, the department thanked Post 327 “for investing in the future of (the Norfolk Police Department).”
The donations go “to spreading that Americanism from outside of the four walls of the post,” Kelly said. “We’re really trying to get to our community with that. And the whole law and order (aspect). And a big thing with a lot of this money is children and youth. A lot of their programs are directed toward youth. And also with getting veterans hired with the Sheriff’s Department.”
Making the donations is an opportunity to show support for the community, both Kelly and Glendinning said. And the blood donation drives and other events at the post have an additional benefit.
“Every time we host an event at the post, whether it’s for Toys for Tots or the blood drives, whatever we do, we always have a membership table,” Glendinning said. “For people that don’t really know what we do, they can come to our membership table and ask questions, and potentially (join the American Legion Family). They’re not necessarily a veteran, but they’re a son or daughter of a veteran, or married to a veteran. And that’s a big thing.”
In South Dakota’s southeast corner, U.S. Army veteran Erlin Ellison has been a fixture in and around the small town of Wakonda. The 86-year-old is the third-generation owner of more than 300 acres of farmland, harvesting soybeans and corn annually.
Ellison, a Paid-Up-For-Life member of Gingrich-Dixon American Legion Post 13, had harvested most of his soybeans before he was injured in a traffic accident that resulted in injuries to his vertebrae under his skull. That left around 160 acres of corn still needing to be harvested – and led to his neighbors, some fellow Legionnaires, to step up and help Ellison.
On Oct. 19, more than 20 local residents showed up at Ellison’s fields, complete with their own equipment, and were able to harvest all of his corn. It started when two of Ellison’s neighbors – Legionnaire Dick Nissen of Westlund Post 44 in nearby Alsen and Danny Johnson, the son of Post 13 Legionnaire Eldon Johnson – noticed that the injured man’s corn was in need of being harvested. They began making phone calls to round up help in taking care of the crops.
One of those phone calls went to South Dakota District 8 Vice Commander Brent Frier, the past commander of Post 13 who has known Ellison “most of my life,” he said, noting that Ellison was instrumental in getting Post 13 rebuilt after its original building burned down around 15 years ago. Ellison also loans one of his tractors to the post for its annual tractor pull and built all of the post’s display cabinetry.
“He’s done so many neighbors favors and fellow Legion members favors,” Frier said. “It was about time he was owed one.”
In addition to Frier, Nissen’s father and fellow Post 44 member Richard also helped with the effort, as did Legionnaire Eldon Johnson. Using teamwork and multiple combines, the entire group was able to harvest the corn and take it to an ethanol plant by mid-afternoon.
Ellison, who has been hospitalized, was able to return to his farm to watch the collective harvesting effort. His voice broke with emotion as he described how it felt to watch others come to assist him.
“It made me feel pretty emotional,” said Ellison, whose grandfather bought the farm in 1889. “Neighbors and some people I’ve never hardly seen coming to help. But I’ve always tried to help people, too.”
American Legion Post 40 in Myrtle Beach, S.C., has seen its share of misfortune – to the point where Past Post Commander Robert Harper wondered if things were going to turn around.
First, Hurricane Matthew brought with it heavy flooding in 2016 that severely damaged Post 40. The following summer, a fire destroyed everything inside the post except its charter.
And while attempting to rebuild and recover from that, Hurricane Florence arrived in 2018, bringing with it another five inches of water and another setback for the post’s membership in its attempt to rebuild.
“There was a time when I thought it wasn’t going to happen, I’ll be honest with you,” Harper said. “It was just too much adversity at one time: a fire and then a flood. We were determined not to borrow any money, that we would work ourselves through it. I just wasn’t sure myself whether we’d make it, even though I tried as hard as I could.”
But the post didn’t give up. Instead, construction started on a new facility in 2019 when Harper was commander. And two years later, in mid-October, a ceremony welcomed the public to the grand opening of the new facility.
“I’m so proud of the guys, the ones that did stick with it,” Harper said. “By and large, everybody stuck with us through the whole thing. It wouldn’t have ever happened unless we all stick together.”
Determined not to go into debt while rebuilding – which included moving the post site further back from the nearby waterway and elevating its foundation – the post was able to get donations from the community to help cover the costs, as well as the use of the American Legion National Emergency Fund. The post also received assistance from The Home Depot, which provided kitchen cabinetry, and from a local Boy Scout troop that donated a U.S. flag disposal bin. An area veteran provided free engineering for the project.
And members of the post, such as Bo Turbeville, worked the actual construction. Turbeville and his cousin, Mennick, helped get construction equipment to the worksite and then worked the construction.
“It sounds simple, throwing a building up. But it’s not,” Harper said. “We’ve got members that are very skilled and have done contracting in the past. We had guys that knew what they were doing. These fellas pulled it off. I’m very proud of them. And I’m very proud that we didn’t borrow any money.”
Post Commander Douglas Vinning told WMFB that he was looking forward to the post opening back up to the community. “We got this building built and we are ready to go back to business,” he said. “We are very excited. We are going on. We are moving forward.”
Harper said having a physical post was a driving force for the membership to see the project to the end.
“I think our guys needed to see something with their own eyes,” he said. “We could have met somewhere where we could have rented or something like that. But I think it meant more to those guys, as veterans who paid the price, to have a place of their own. The camaraderie on their own land, in their own building, means a lot to them.”
In 2020, American Legion Post 105 and its American Legion Riders chapter in Redwood City, Calif., wanted to raise funds for the VA Palo Alto Healthcare System – specifically for its suicide-prevention efforts. They were able to stage a 22-mile ride from the post to the hospital, but were never able to make a point of contact at the facility.
So the $1,600 they raised ended up going to another nonprofit that raises awareness for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“But I really wanted to keep it in our area to help OUR veterans,” said Post 105 Commander George Smith, the founder and a past director of ALR Chapter 105. “And after about a month we finally got a contact (at the Palo Alto VA) that we could donate the money to.”
So Post 105 and its Riders went at it again this year, and in mid-October more than 40 motorcycles – ridden by Chapter 105 Riders and members of the Golden Gate HOG #3923 riding group – again made the 22-mile ride from Post 105 to the VA facility, bringing with them a check for $3,750. The money came from donations from Post 105’s entire American Legion Family, as well as other area riding groups.
The check was presented by Smith, Chapter 105 Road Captain and Sons of The American Legion Squadron Commander Andrew Trapani, Chapter 105 Sergeant-at-Arms Ken Pearson and a HOG #3923 representative; the money will go specifically to assist the facility’s suicide-prevention program.
Palo Alto VA spokesman Michael Hill-Jackson told the RWC Pulse it was the first time that he remembered receiving a donation earmarked for the suicide prevention program. “Donations like these are very important and can really help us to do more,” he said.
Learning that their donation was the first of its kind to the Palo Alto VA “makes us feel terrific,” Smith said. “I know it’s a small contribution. But just knowing that we’re contributing to our fellow brothers and sisters that are having a hard time – and possibly maybe thinking of taking their own lives – if we can just prevent one, do one little thing, it makes a difference.”
Smith praised his entire American Legion Family for their efforts contributing to the donation, as well as the effort of Trapani. “He makes sure we get from Point A to Point B safe,” Smith said.
Looking ahead to 2022, Smith has set a goal of raising $10,000 next year. “Every time you do something to help a fellow veteran, it makes you feel good,” he said.
Each night at 6:30 p.m., France pays tribute to its war dead with the rekindling of the Eternal Flame and a remembrance of the nation’s Unknown Soldier.
Dozens of Americans joined the ritual at the Arc de Triomphe on Tuesday night after a 10-day pilgrimage across France in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the U.S. Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Participants said the pilgrimage reflected the depth and warmth of U.S.-French relations at ground level, even as diplomatic relations have fractured over a submarine acquisition deal that led France last week to recall its ambassador to the U.S. for the first time.
The group visited the four World War I cemeteries where the candidates for the U.S. Unknown Soldier were chosen in 1921, then arrived in Chalons-en-Champagne, where the soldier was selected, for a ceremonial vigil and parade.
They continued to Le Havre, where the USS Olympia took the Unknown Soldier back to U.S. shores, sending him on his way to his final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery.
“We were all just very honored to see the respect and affection of the French people toward us,” said Craig Fallon, who served as a tomb guard at Arlington from 1962-1963.
The group traveled with a U.S. flag they flew over the four WWI cemeteries, a piece of wood from the USS Olympia and other treasures. The collection will go on display at the Washington Navy Yard and the U.S. Capitol rotunda before arriving at the national cemetery on Veterans Day.
In remembering the Unknown Soldier, “we remember every single family that has no place to mourn their loved one,” said Gavin McIlvenna, the pilgrimage’s chief organizer, who served as a tomb guard from 1997-1998.
The idea of honoring an unidentified soldier began in France in 1916, while WWI raged across the country and the ultimate outcome remained in doubt.
Following the war, 21-year-old veteran Auguste Thin was chosen to select the French Unknown Soldier from among eight candidates. The soldier was laid to rest at the Arc de Triomphe on Nov. 11, 1920.
The U.S. largely followed the French example and chose Sgt. Edward Younger to make the selection. A year after the French, the U.S. Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated.
“The French Unknown Soldier is every bit as honored and cherished as our own Unknown Soldier,” Fallon said.
On Tuesday at the Arc de Triomphe, representatives laid wreaths and flowers from organizations that included The American Legion, the Association of the U.S. Army, Democrats Abroad, Daughters of the American Revolution, American Gold Star Mothers, Junior ROTC from Defense Department schools in Germany, the Society of the Honor Guard, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the U.S. Embassy Paris.
France is America’s oldest ally, and there is a shared sense of gratitude starting with the American Revolution, said Denise VanBuren, the DAR’s president general.
“People everywhere have stopped us to share how they feel,” VanBuren said. In making this pilgrimage, “I feel as though we are further strengthening our bond.”
On Oct. 14, fourth graders from Nisswa Elementary School in Minnesota made the annual walk from school to American Legion Post 627 for a flag etiquette program. The posts color guard walked with the kids from school for the outdoor program, which is a staple on the principal’s agenda every year.
“It’s a special event that they really look forward to every year,” said Post Commander Susan Edwards. “They get to learn something. It’s really well received. The teachers like it.”
The post conducts a flag retirement ceremony in conjunction with the flag etiquette program to educate the youth about the proper disposal of unserviceable flags, how to fold a flag, what the flag means, and how to respect the flag.
“We tell them we are not burning the flags in protest. We are burning the flags so they don’t end up in the landfill and disrespected,” Edwards shared. “We tell them that the flag has been a beacon for our city and our community in some way and deserves to be honorably retired and we do that by burning.”
Edwards said the kids also learn how to approach a business or individual when the flag flown needs to be retired.
The program is normally held inside the post home where the kids watch a flag video, receive a flag coloring book, have snacks, and fold a flag with Legionnaires. But since the pandemic, the event is held outside.
Edwards said she enjoys hosting a flag etiquette program for the fourth graders because “they’re bright little faces are absorbing knowledge. If you get them young and you give them a positive example, they will remember this for the rest of their lives. They’ll say, ‘When I was in fourth grade the Legion taught us about the U.S. flag.’ You reel them into patriotism.”