As Toby Keith’s “American Soldier” played through speakers nearby, Gary Brooks walked along the GoldStars Tribute Wall on Saturday in Gainesville to honor his fellow veterans who died in combat.
The traveling wall, which displays the names of soldiers who have died serving in the U.S. military since the Gulf War, was displayed at the Paul E. Bolding Post 7 American Legion as part of an event celebrating the legion’s 100th anniversary.
“I’m just here to honor these gentlemen and their families — that’s why I’m here,” said Brooks, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam era. “I saw the Vietnam wall, and hopefully this wall won’t get that big.”
Veterans and their families were at the event getting barbecue or hot dogs from vendors, entering a raffle, playing bingo and waiting for the live entertainment to start.
Johnny Varner, organizer for the event, said it served as an open house for the legion, which is hoping to draw new members from the community. As the American Legion gets older, the ages of its members grow with it.
“It’s just hard to get these young veterans to come back,” Brooks said. “They’re of a different mindset, a different generation.”
Ron Kellner, past commander with the legion, said it offers a lot to the community and its members, which is why it’s so important for it to continue for 100 more years and beyond. He called it a brotherhood.
“We need younger veterans coming back from Iraq, Iran, the ongoing war, to get involved here because old guys like me are going to die away,” said Kellner, who served in the Army during the Vietnam War in 1965 and 1966.
But the legion isn’t just a gathering place for veterans. Varner said it’s more than that.
“There is a stereotype that sometimes it’s a watering hole,” said Varner, who served in the Army in Iraq in 2003.”
When Dan Solla came back from serving in the Army in Iraq and Germany 2002-2006, that’s all he thought the legion was.
“My idea of the legion was a bunch of old guys who hang out and drink beer and play poker or whatever, but that’s far from the truth,” Solla said.
As the managing director of the Atlanta chapter of PTSD Foundation of America, Solla was looking for a place to host weekly support groups for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. The legion was the perfect place, and now he hosts a group of 10 to 15 veterans every Wednesday.
Solla is one of those younger members the legion has been trying to attract, and with Solla’s help, it’s slowly been growing. He said he realized the legion has a lot to offer veterans, especially younger ones who may be having trouble finding their place after returning from service.
Andre Castleberry said it’s important for the legion to host events like it did for its 100-year anniversary. It brings awareness to the American Legion, and if it encourages just one person to come through its doors, the events are well worth it.
“I just hope that everybody is aware of what we have to offer,” said Castleberry, who served in the Navy from 1989 to 2012. “We don’t want to see any veteran left behind or left out. We want them to know that there are resources here for them.”