A national commander of the American Legion had never visited James B. Whipple American Legion Post 86 in Wilton Center in the organization’s entire 98 years.
So when one did, on Oct. 2, the legion members rolled out the red carpet.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had as many people in this room as we do today,” said Post Commander Bill Glass, who welcomed about 70 legion members from Wilton and around Connecticut to greet National Commander Brett Reistad of Arlington, Va.
They feasted on spicy homemade chili and hearty sandwiches, in a spirit of camaraderie that is no stranger to veterans who have served in war.
That was exactly the point Reistad wished to make in his speech to the legion members. He asked them to help recruit younger members who have served in recent wars, from Desert Shield in 1991 to the present, because the older generation of warriors is fading away.
Membership nationwide is down to about two million members and receding, Reistad said. He’d like to get younger members involved.
“I’d like to get us growing again,” Reistad said. “There are so many potential members out there who don’t know they are eligible. We have to reach out to them and invite them,” he said.
Reistad visited the Wilton post as part of his national tour marking the 100th anniversary of the American Legion.
He is a U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam era, and graduated from Greenwich High School in 1974.
His family no longer has roots in Connecticut though, so the visit to Wilton was a sort of homecoming, he said.
The theme for his year-long service as commander is “Celebrating Our Legacy,” as the Legion celebrates its centennial as a chartered veterans organization, serving veterans and their families, children and youth, a strong national defense and Americanism.
He talked about how the American Legion was a strong supporter of the G.I. Bill, which allows veterans to go to college, as well as health benefits for Vietnam veterans suffering from the effects of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange.
Adjutant Tom Moore of Post 86 said all the members were proud to have a national commander visit for the first time.
“We didn’t have a say in it, the American Legion sets these up every year,” Moore said. “We’re very excited about it.”
State Rep. Gail Lavielle read and presented a proclamation welcoming Reistad to Wilton on behalf of First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice.
Visitors included Sergeant At Arms Bruce Carlson of Beacon Falls, a 2005 U.S. Navy Seabees veteran of Iraq.
“It’s an honor to be here, at a post that has its roots in the World War I era,” Carlson said.