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Post of recognition
Gainesvilles American Legion Eugene Brown Post 521 is ready for its next step
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After serving duty during World War II, Richard Smith returned to Gainesville, where he has been married to Coralen Smith since 1971. - photo by Tom Reed

Back before the days of integration, some cities and towns had separate American Legion posts - and Gainesville was no different.

In 1948, Gainesville men were coming home from World War II and needed a place to go for friendship and support. From that need, the American Legion Eugene Brown Post 521 was born.

Founding members like John Morrow Jr. and Doc Harrison formed the post, which is now in its 60th year.

"A number of people were a part of getting the charter started," said Stephanie Watkins, first female and former commander of Post 521. "It has been successful up until the last 20 years. As the older guys die, unfortunately they didn't have younger members who could carry it on.

"For the most part, the World War II guys were the force behind (it), and all over the United States have been feeling that pinch because everyone is dying out."

Post 521's namesake, Eugene Brown, is believed to be the first solder to die from Georgia during WWII.

Watkins said since the mid-1990s the post's building on 1372 Harrison Drive has been condemned.

But now since the charter returned in 2006 there is a rejuvenation of Post 521. The post's membership is growing, which has given the group new life.

"When I got involved in 2006 we had about 14 members; today we have 60," Watkins said. "So in order to take our post to the next level we need new members and that is happening."

According to Watkins, the Ladies' Auxillary is what really held Post 521 together over the years.

Nationally, the American Legion was chartered by Congress in 1919 as a patriotic and war-time veterans organization. Now the community service organization has nearly 3 million male and female members, according to its Web site.

Last night, Post 521 was scheduled to celebrate its 60th anniversary, which is also a fundraiser for the renovation of its building, at the Gainesville Civic Center.

With the new attitude of Post 521 came a new commander, Johnny Varner Jr., who is retired from the U.S. Army.

"We need to get the building renovated and it will be a civic center for the community, not act in the capacity as just a club," Varner said. "We have Boy Scouts that we are trying to sponsor, we have programs also and we are trying to use those to complement them."

Watkins, who formerly served with the U.S. Air Force, said Post 521 is raising the money to rehabilitate the condemned building.

"We have a nice little amount going," she said. "We'll eventually have to take out a loan for the bulk of it."

Watkins expects the project to cost about $250,000.

"We are hoping to have a green space with a garden, waterfalls, reflection pools ... an area for basketball for kids to come," she said. "So we have a long way to go but at least we are starting."

Today, meet some of the post's members.

Richard Smith

It's interesting and humbling to speak with a man who knows so much history.

Those are the feelings you experience after a conversation with Richard Smith, 81, about his World War II service.

Memories of a segregated military is what Smith conjures first.

"We went to Le Harve (France) and went on into Germany and left Nuremberg and went to Vienna, Austria and went through Dutch Holland and Amsterdam and shipped out and came back to the States," Smith said. "When we landed in Le Havre, France, those people were running from us."

Because the soldiers were segregated at that time, the white soldiers told the French townspeople stories about the African-American troops coming in behind them.

Smith said the white soldiers had told the "people over there that we were monkeys, we had tails."

Smith, who grew up in Gainesville, served for 11 months in the U.S. Army. He said during his tour in Europe he saw many beautiful things and places, but he will always remember the war.

"You can't forget it, I can't," he said. "It will follow me until dirt is thrown in my face."

He says if he had one wish, he could go back to Vienna, Austria, because of the picturesque landscapes.

"The water was just as clear and pretty," he said. "They call the rivers canals because the water was clean and they had those lilies on the water. You've seen it in the books before, all of that is true."

During Smith's 11 months in Europe he luckily did not have to fight, after he had served his time he promptly returned to Gainesville.

He joined the American Legion Eugene Brown Post 521 soon after he returned to Gainesville and rejoined about three months ago.

"He (Smith) is the go-to-guy; if you ask him to do anything he'll do it," Post 521 former commander Stephanie Watkins said. "He's always prompt and on time, he's a man of his word. He loves the veterans."

Over the years Smith has been heavily involved in his church, St. Paul United Methodist, and still shoots hoops at DeSota Park in Newtown.

"I was saved in 1953 and I can't really tell you how I felt when I was walking toward the pulpit," Smith said. "My pastor asked me, the Rev. Hunter, what did I want to do? And I told him I wanted to work as an usher in the church. But I can't explain how I felt and up to today I can't."

Smith has lived through many times of hardship, like the tornado of 1936. He attended school during that time and lived in Gainesville during a very poor time.

But he still has strong opinions about our soldiers today.

"From the bottom of my heart, I believe in not taking something away from somebody else," he said. "That's the way my mama raised me. See, we are losing lots of men and we still might not get that oil."

Smith has been married to Coralen Smith since 1971 and the couple shares four children. He also has a sister, Magnolia Smith, the youngest of nine siblings, who lives in Gainesville.

On Fathers Day, Smith got a special visit from his son.

"It was the first time he's come to see me in I don't know when ... anyway he came to see me and I wept," he said.

Douglas Cobb

Douglas Cobb was different than many who served during the Vietnam War - he enlisted in the U.S. Army voluntarily.

"Well, I came to that decision because during that time, like it is now, there wasn't no jobs," said Cobb, the vice commander at the American Legion Eugene Brown Post 521.

"The only thing that was available was poultry plants and cotton mills and I had dropped out of school and I didn't want to do that. So I went into the military to finish getting an education."

At first, Cobb thought his decision to enter the military was the best for him. But now, looking back, he has mixed feelings.

"Eventually all the machinery and the noise, I started having problems," said Cobb, who worked in a machine shop after attending Lanier Technical College. "I started having flashbacks from all the noise. I can still see the war and the stuff that I have been through."

Today Cobb is married to Cheryl Cobb and has three children: Cherjuana Crawford, Mikado Cobb and Barbie Smith. His mother Roberta Hunter lives in Gainesville.

"He was in the wrong time but was alright," Hunter said. "It worried me to death every day."

Cobb, who is retired, still has the flashbacks but deals with the memories by going to the U.S. Veterans Medical Center in Atlanta and taking medication for his post traumatic stress disorder.

For 17 years, Cobb served in the Army Reserves and was medically discharged in 1983.

"I go to the V.A. once a month and that's all they want to talk about," he said. "I try to talk about something else more pleasant like fishing. I'm trying to forget this thing; this is something that will never leave your mind. It's always something; sometimes it's so vivid that it's like it's happening all over again."

Cobb, who was a U.S. Army sergeant from Harmony Church, 1st Battalion Co. C out of Fort Benning, fought in three major battles during his year in Vietnam.

He said now he can really relate to the military personnel who are currently serving in Iraq.

"The guys coming back now from Iraq, they are not getting their just due just like when we came back from Vietnam," he said. "When I came back it was awful. When I got off the plane I was being called a baby killer, they were protesting this and that and I was so young I really didn't know what was going on.

"At first I was so young it didn't bother me, but as I got older and found out what Vietnam was about it bothered me; it bothers me now."

Cobb added that the war in Iraq today is "another Vietnam."

"Maybe a little worse because they really don't know who their enemies are either."

This is why he is determined to revive Post 521, to help younger guys who have served their country.

"I think this is good for the community," he said. "We are changing the whole concept about what the Legion was and it won't be nothing like it was. It's going to be a place to welcome back the veterans from all the wars.

"Most of all we don't want them to forget that the price of freedom had to be paid for by what they see."

Johnny Varner Jr.

After spending a career serving in the U.S. Army, Johnny Varner Jr. is busy serving the community that he grew up in.

About a year ago, Varner became the commander and youngest member, at 45, of the American Legion Eugene Brown Post 521.

"One aspect of being in the military and coming back home, you get to how much progress has been made," he said. "When I came back I wanted to do something in the community to try and help change some things. I am going at every angle that I can."

Varner's goal is for Post 521 to really make a mark on the Gainesville community in many ways and he hopes Saturday's Legionnaire Ball is the turning point.

"The members of the general bodies are mostly Vietnam veterans, Korean veterans and of course we are losing our World War II veterans, the greatest generation" he said. "What we have to be wary of is the next generation."

Post 521 currently has 60 members and there are hopes for even more growth.

"The generation that is coming through now, retirees that are around my age, we need to make sure we fill the void," Varner said. "Hopefully we'll be back up and that will be our hub for these programs."

James Brooks, who retired in 1978 from the U.S. Air Force, said he is very hopeful about the post's new leadership. "I hope it gets some local recognition to show that it has been revived," Brooks said. "And I hope the people from that will begin to support it more so it can again thrive and also go back to do some of the things of old. Sponsoring youth programs is a big thing and have a place where adults can relax and have refreshments."

Post 521 meets at the Harrison Square Center and stays involved with the community, like its recent participation in the Memorial Day parade.

"We did a memorial service on Memorial Day after we participated in the parade and we went to the graves on the Southside and placed flags on the graves," he said.

Varner said he knows that since he is the youngest member - and represents the next generation of the American Legion - he must remember the past but look ahead to the future. Varner brings an understanding of the current war in Iraq to Post 521.

"I went into an augmentation program and that is where the Army actually selects you for your specific job," Varner said. "I was a radar specialist and was selected over there, left my unit at Fort Hood (Texas) and arrived in Kuwait January 2003, part of the initial war when we invaded.

"I worked at the headquarters and was working with the Patriot missile system. I would provide them with a radar picture of incoming missiles coming from the Iraqis ... as soon as we had softened up their capabilities we went in and invaded."

Varner said he drove through the country and helped set up U.S. Army headquarters in Baghdad.

"Baghdad International is where we were going to set up the headquarters but the airport was damaged so we had to go to one of the palaces and set up our command operations," he said. "We set up there and basically performed headquarters operations there, then my tour was up and I came back."

The Iraq war, Varner said, has become an unpopular war but added that there are some positives.

"The thing of it is, for instance, enlistments are up and have steadily increased," he said. "Recruiters are meeting their goals, so that says a lot about the generation itself."

Varner, the father of four sons, said throughout his military career that his wife had the hardest job.

"My wife Lisa has had the toughest job," said Varner, who married Lisa Goss Varner after they graduated from Johnson High School.

"She was not really able to sustain a set career, being that we moved so much; it's good to come back home."

It was hard for the Varners to move constantly but they said they learned many important lessons about living in the service.

"Freedom isn't free," Varner said. "It hasn't ever been free. Unfortunately, sometimes freedom has been determined by conflict and it has gone back to Bible times and it is the cycle of life.

"I think not until this point in our society have people looked at service members differently versus the era that politics kind of driven the war. I can tell you now as a modern-day soldier that it is humbling to walk through the airport."

The Varners' children are Austin, 7, Jonathan, 19, Anthony Wimms, 19, and Chaz, 28. Granddaughter Danielle is 4. Varner's parents were Johnny W. Varner Sr. and Winnie Varner. His brother Eric Varner lives in Gainesville.

After a career in the service, Varner returned to Gainesville and began working at Covenant Lenders. Soon, he said, he plans to head over to the Spout Springs Library to work as a librarian.

Varner is reading the "Joshua" series by Joseph F. Girzone.

"There are some real-life applications," he said. "I have taken a curiosity toward it, all Legionnaires should think they are Joshuas because it is their civic duty to do those things that Joshua did."

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