Student veterans share their American Legion stories

They came from every corner of the United States. Thousands of young veterans from as far away as the University of Maine-Fort Kent and the University of Florida at Gainesville made their way to Los Angeles Jan. 3-5 for the 12th Student Veterans of America National Conference. More than 2,500 are estimated to have participated, another record attendance year for the association’s marquee event.

When they were not taking in one of the 96 breakout sessions, networking or listening to motivational guest speakers, dozens of students dropped by a special American Legion video booth across from the Department of California’s information table. Among the 28 who shared their American Legion stories on camera were veterans who had just joined the organization, some who came to the conference thanks to American Legion sponsorships and others who have generations in their American Legion Family blood lines.

“I knew I wanted to get involved in the veteran community somehow,” said Ohio State University student Nate Garens, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps between 2005 and 2017. “So, I was looking at all the veteran organizations – all 9 million of them – and the Legion was first, and in my opinion, the Legion is best. That’s why I joined.”

Garens said he received an invitation to attend the American Legion Department of Ohio Centennial Gala last March and joined Post 246 in Columbus after hearing the speakers, taking in the history and socializing with veterans of all ages there. “I’m still building my understanding of the Legion, but I know the roots of it. I know where it came from. I know the struggles they face. The best thing I can do is talk the Legion up and get people to join. You know, post-9/11 veterans like myself, and people getting out – even if they don’t say it out loud – we are all looking for something to be a part of … the reality of the situation is that you are never really done with the military. It’s going to be part of who you are, for your entire life.”

Ariel Barbosa, a newly graduated computer science major from the University of Florida on his way to a job with Lockheed Martin, became emotional when he explained that The American Legion’s support during his Vietnam veteran father’s recent death made him a member. He said that being part of a larger veteran community has been important to him as a student and will continue to be so in his civilian career.

“I am here to tell my story to other veterans – how Student Veterans of America helps, and there are other veterans service organizations that can help, too,” he said. “I want to be a part of that now.”

Graduate student Ashley Gorbulja-Maldonado, who at 26 years old has been a member of The American Legion since 2014, said the camaraderie of membership and the satisfaction of community service are key reasons she is a member. “It’s like having a family,” the former Ohio Army National Guard soldier said. “The military provided that for me. (And) to have the opportunity to help others and be an influence in my community is really what drew me to The American Legion.”

She said The American Legion can attract more younger veterans by embracing their entire families. “We need to create events and programs that are surrounded by family, encompassing everyone. Family programs is where I really think it’s at.”

Syracuse University law student Ryan Marquette, an Army veteran and current National Guardsman, added that fitness programs can also attract post-9/11 veterans to the organization. “I think, looking at the GWOT (Global War on Terrorism) veterans, they are more health-conscious than previous generations,” he said. “I think Team Red White and Blue has had a lot of success because they do runs. I think if the Legion added in a lot of those runs or maybe decided to get together to knock out ‘The Murph’ (workouts named for Medal of Honor Navy SEAL Michael Murphy) Memorial Day or Veterans Day weekend, I think that’s going to draw some of that crowd in.”

Marquette, who said he plans to be a Legionnaire for life, added that the post-9/11 veterans are also drawn to the organization’s advocacy. “They are socially aware, they do believe in having social impact, and that’s what The American Legion does, through different fundraisers in their local communities or through lobbying on Capitol Hill for veterans issues. I think that is going to attract a lot of GWOT-era veterans as time continues.”

Curtis Babb, a Cascadia College (Bothell, Wash.) business finance major who served in the Navy from 2014 to 2018, said he did not know much about The American Legion while he was in the service but now understands the organization’s importance for military personnel and veterans alike. “The American Legion, since I learned more about it, has become a more prominent figure in my view, as to what I can do to help change different aspects of veteran and active-duty life. With The American Legion, I hope to push for more reforms, in order to help vets in general, whether it be homelessness, health care or any other program that may need some change.”

Indiana University-Purdue University Post 360 Commander Clifton Morlan, said American Legion membership gives student veterans a meaningful, low-cost outlet. “We try to give back to the community,” he said of the 53-member campus post. “A lot of our younger veterans – especially the students – their goal is to give back to the community. So, we do a lot of volunteer (work) helping veterans in need. It’s a way for them to give back without giving money and without having to think about studying for a little while.”

Florida Legionnaire Nestor Palma of Broward College, who served 20 years as a Navy corpsman, said he was drawn to The American Legion’s tradition of service. “I am a big fan and believer in keeping tradition,” he said. “I want to continue helping veterans any way I can. This will be a forever-going passion for me, taking care of veterans with the Legion, with education and community. It’s a passion that will stick for life. I will be a Legionnaire for life.”

Navy veteran Trevor Johnson, who is studying industrial technology management at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, is a third-generation Legionnaire. “Being a Legionnaire is part of the family, dating all the way back to my grandfather,” he said. “We are all members of the same post in Sparta, Wis. For me, it was a way to continue serving the community. It’s how I was raised.”

He agreed that service in The American Legion “is a great way to spend time if I have a few extra hours in the day or week. I go there and help however I can.” He also appreciates the fact that the UW system recognized 53 of his 56 military training credits when he became a student, the acceptance of which has been a consistent lobbying message of The American Legion for veterans pursuing careers in specialized fields.

Air Force veteran Leroy McKenzie, has returned to college in Maine after a knee injury at a job site forced him to “change gears,” he said, and pursue computer science. A student at the University of Maine-Fort Kent, he is also a district second vice commander in The American Legion’s Department of Maine. His fellow Legionnaires have provided important encouragement for him and his family as he works toward his degree and a new career direction. “A lot of people from our post are on social media,” he said. “Last semester, I got a 4.0 grade point average – for the first time in my life – and I couldn’t even count the number of post members who congratulated me (in social media) or supported me from a verbal standpoint. I didn’t personally have that before. I had it with my wife and my family, so to speak, but I didn’t have it from my brothers and sisters, my comrades.”

Northern Illinois University graduate student Matthew Galloway, who served in the Navy from 2010 to 2014, said Post 66 in DeKalb, Ill., where he is a member, has been extremely supportive of the SVA chapter there in multiple ways, including part-time job opportunities, scholarships and complimentary memberships in The American Legion. “They have been instrumental in my transition out of the service,” Galloway said of Post 66. “They have been an integral connection to the local community. The post commander and officers of the post are active community members, so outside of just the military connection, they have helped get other members connected to community resources, whether that’s employment or other opportunities. They have a service officer there who has been very helpful, and they also work closely with the county veterans benefits processor.”

Gorbulja-Maldonado, who became a Legionnaire at Akron University Post 808 in Ohio, said the relationship between the 100-year-old organization and the post-9/11 student veterans has the potential to “achieve amazing things. Impact and legacy – I look to my brothers and sisters in arms that have come before me and trail-blazed,” she said. “We have the power to influence. There is power in numbers, and when we all get together, nothing is impossible.”