American Legion marks centennial

Members of the American Expeditionary Force convened in Paris in March 1919 for the first American Legion caucus. Among the soldiers present was Norris Follett, a Naugatuck native who served in the U.S. Army’s Motor Corps Division in France during World War I.

By the time Congress approved the American Legion as a national veterans’ organization in September 1919, Follett had returned to Naugatuck and founded American Legion Post 17.

Post 17 Commander Ron Fischer said the veterans were concerned they wouldn’t be taken care of after returning home.

“They were afraid they wouldn’t have anything to fall back on. So the American Legion was created to take care of guys returning home,” Fischer said.

Rich Minnick, adjutant for American Legion Schaeffer-Fischer Post 25 in Beacon Falls, said the idea of the organization was to ensure there was someone who was fighting to obtain services, such as health care, for veterans returning home from the war.

“They came up with this idea of establishing a veterans’ organization and applied to Congress to create the organization,” Minnick said.

Fischer credited the borough’s patriotic history for establishing a post very early.

“We have a lot of veterans in this town. It is a very patriotic town. They started the Post to benefit those in need,” Fischer said.

Beacon Falls was also quick to start the new organization. Minnick said Post 25 was the 25th post to be recognized in the state.

In Prospect, American Legion Post 194 was founded in 1959 and named after Tommy Merriman, a Prospect resident and U.S. Army soldier who was killed in the Korean War.

Doug Merriman, Tommy Merriman’s brother, said his brother was a talented mechanic and, after graduating from high school, decided to put his skills to use in the armed forces. Tommy Merriman served in the Army’s motor corps during his time in the war, Merriman said.

Even though he is not a veteran himself, Doug Merriman has volunteered with Post 194 for years. He also speaks with students in town about the roles veterans have played in the country.

Post 194 Commander Martin Muzzey said veterans of World War II and the Korean War primarily started the post.

Since its inception, American Legion has been an organization for veterans to find help.

Minnick said there are times when veterans returning home are too proud to ask for help, so the legion will reach out to them and make sure they have everything they need. This includes ensuring veterans have access to health care, providing transportation to doctors’ appointments, and making them aware of benefits available from the government.

Fischer said those services are just as important now as they were 100 years ago.

“We are still making new veterans every day. We have to help them get back into society,” Fischer said.

Fischer said the services are especially important to disabled veterans.

“Some veterans come back not in the same condition as when they left,” Fischer said. “We have a service officer that takes care of vets in need.”

The legion is also known for helping their communities. Nationally, the legion works with the Boy Scouts of America.

“The legion has supported the Boy Scouts since day one, both nationally and in town,” Minnick said.

The legion also hosts state-wide programs, such as the Boys and Girls Day that is a “boot camp for politics,” Fischer said.

“They learn about how the government is structured and how government works,” Fischer said.

Locally, Post 17 helped procure a little league field in Naugatuck, Post 194 hosts an annual Valentine’s Day dance to raise money for veterans in hospice, and Post 25 works to install air conditioners and heating units for residents in Beacon Falls.

Although the American Legion is celebrating its 100th anniversary, there is concern about what the future holds for the organization.

Each local commander said membership has been declining over recent years.

“We have been losing members on a regular basis,” Fischer said. “The older men are dying off and younger guys don’t want to get involved yet because they are raising families.”

Merriman said younger veterans need to start stepping up in larger numbers.

“They’ll have to take over someday because we are getting older,” Merriman said.

Even though the numbers have been in decline, Muzzey has faith in the younger generation.

“Your service doesn’t end when you retire. We are in it for life,” Muzzey said.

Muzzey said he knows younger veterans will step up because they share a common bond with their older peers.

“I have the same brotherhood with a 25-year-old that just came back from Afghanistan as I do with someone who served in Vietnam. It is very sacred to those that served. It is one thing we all share in common,” Muzzey said. “Eventually they join, but they’ll just come later.”