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American Legion marks 100 years

Ceremony commemorates the group’s start

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Dozens of people, including veterans from Baldwin, Freeport and surrounding communities, gathered in William J. Martin Park in Freeport last Friday to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the American Legion.

The William Clinton Story American Legion Post 342 of Freeport hosted a ceremony in which veterans, including those who fought in World War II, recognized the gift of a 240-mm trench mortar from the now-defunct Freeport chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic that was used in major World War I battles. The mortar, developed by Batignolles Company of Paris, sits in the park where passersby can view it.

“These weapons, these mortars, were used in siege warfare on the Western Front to destroy enemy strong points, bunkers and similar hard targets which were invulnerable to lighter mortars and field mortars,” said David Cockerel, adjutant and former commander of the Freeport post.

“I’m really grateful for the service of all American Legion members,” State Assemblywoman Judy Griffin said at the ceremony. “We can never take [our armed forces] for granted, and I’m certainly someone who doesn’t.” She presented a 100th anniversary certificate to Legion members in attendance.

Baldwin American Legion Post 246 will host a separate ceremony on Sept. 13 commemorating its 100th anniversary, which fell on Aug. 12.

“All of our World War I veterans are gone now, so we have a couple of World War II veterans, and our senior member in Baldwin is a World War II vet, and he’s in his 90s now, so certainly being with him is very awe-inspiring,” said Bob Hare, commander of the Baldwin American Legion post. “It’s nice to have a memento in the community that the post is putting up. I’ve never seen a trench mortar before — maybe on TV, but not in person.”

The commander of the Nassau County American Legion, Al Ficalora, of Baldwin, said that 16 of the 52 posts in Nassau County have existed for 100 years, including those in Baldwin, Freeport, Hempstead, Rockville Centre, Lynbrook and Valley Stream.

“It’s important because out of the 52 posts in our division, we only have 16 that actually were formed 100 years ago, so this is a big distinction,” Ficalora said. “There were so many posts, and only 16 that had 100 years, so we had a big ceremony at the military ball where we gave out a special streamer for the 16 posts for their post flag — they have a streamer that says 100 years centennial.”

Cockerel spoke about the history of the American Legion and the Grand Army of the Republic, which was a fraternal organization composed of veterans of the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines and Revenue Cutter Service who served in the American Civil War. The GAR was founded in 1866 in Springfield, Ill., Cockerel continued, and grew to include hundreds of posts, or local community units, across the nation. Before it was dissolved in 1956, it assisted veterans after their days of combat.

“The GAR,” Cockerel said, “became the first organized advocacy group in American politics, supporting voting rights for black veterans, promoting patriotic education, helping to make Memorial Day a national holiday, lobbying the United States Congress to establish regular veterans pensions and supporting Republican political candidates of that era. The GAR, he added, was succeeded by the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War.

“Every state, even those of a former confederacy, fell within a GAR department, and within the departments were posts,” Cockerel said. “These were forerunners of modern American Legion halls and VFW halls of today.”

“For all of us who served and now serve in the Legion, we understand the importance of remembering,” State Sen. John Brooks said at the ceremony before presenting the Legion with a proclamation from the New York State Senate. “We remember our lost and missing soldiers, we remember the veterans that we have now that are in need of assistance in different ways, we remember those who are on active duty now all across this world, and we recognize that part of our duty wasn’t just to serve in the military when we served, but it’s to provide for those who also served who are in need now.”

Lawmakers and policymakers should be invited to events like this, Nassau County Legislator Debra Mulé said, so they are reminded to keep veterans’ needs and priorities at the forefront. “You all have earned that right and that respect,” she said.

“Citizens, support your country and its veterans,” Cockerel said. “Veterans, your oath is forever seared in you — a tattoo on your soul. You have been discharged from active duty but not your duty to act.”