The American Legion has come to Columbia. The international organization for veterans and active-duty military personnel has formed a chapter, known as a post, that will meet in the east Columbia branch library until it establishes a permanent home.
"Before this there was only one post in Howard County, in Ellicott City," said Elbert D. White, Maryland state membership chairman for the American Legion. "We saw a need in Columbia. We felt, with the size of Columbia and the number of veterans here, this would be a perfect place to form a new post."
The response has been wonderful, White said.
"We already have 17 new members signed up, two transfers [from other posts] and four more people that have expressed interest," he said.
The American Legion has 14,000 posts worldwide and 2.8 million members, White said. Since its inception in 1919, the organization has been an outspoken advocate for veterans' benefits, for the quality of life of retired and active military personnel, and for youths, White said. The new post will focus on assistance to veterans and community service.
"Government programs are being cut," White said. "We lobby for veterans' health care to ensure they receive the benefits they were promised."
People join the legion for a variety of reasons.
Wilde Lake resident Don O'Sullivan, 69, has been a member of the Ellicott City post for 16 years and is looking forward to the new Columbia group.
"I like the idea of being part of something bigger than myself," said O'Sullivan, who served in the Army during the Korean War. "I hope we can help people who are down in the dumps. ... Members visit VA hospitals. Some of those people have been abandoned by their families."
Harper's Choice resident Charles Hasberry, 28, is a second lieutenant in the Air Force and will be a member of the Columbia post.
"I've been a member of the American Legion when I was stationed in other places," said Hasberry, who recently returned from Japan. "But this is the first time the post will be so close. It will give me an opportunity to get more involved."
The legion is a focal point for his energies.
"It's a great place to find out about charity work and volunteer opportunities in the community," he said. "It's great to try to help out alone, but when you bring energies together you can do so much more."
For new member O'Dell Brooks of Long Reach, joining the American Legion will open doors to a network of support. The single father has lived in Columbia for three years. His two younger daughters - Tiffany, 10, and A'delle, 12 - live with him; his two older daughters are in college, studying medicine.
"This is really a blessing for me, being new to the community and not having a lot of connections," said Brooks, who served in the Army from 1974 to 1975. "I know the youth programs will be great for my daughters. [And] I will have a larger social network to rely on."
The location will benefit many veterans, Brooks said.
"I know a lot of vets that travel to Baltimore and Washington for services, so it's really nice that this will be right here. This is a wonderful organization, from the research I've done. I hope this community will be very receptive and the post will become an active part of the community."
In addition to being a strong voice for veterans, the legion runs many youth programs, including Boys State and Girls State, which teach children about the government, a national high school oratorical contest and a baseball league. The legion is the second largest supporter of the Boy Scouts. (The Mormon church is first, White said.)
And there is the social aspect.
"It's a great place for people to get together," White said. "Some retired people are no longer physically able to do things, but they can always come down and play cards together and swap war stories."
The new post has helped form friendships.
"I just found out my next door neighbor served in the Navy for four years," O'Sullivan said. "She's a young woman; I never would have guessed."
The only requirement to become a member of the American Legion is having served in the military during a "wartime era as established by Congress," White said. "That is, anything from Korea, World War I, World War II, Vietnam and the gulf war," he said. "The gulf war opened as a war in 1990 and has not been closed, so anyone that is in the military at present or who has had an honorary discharge since 1990 is also welcome," he said.
The Columbia post's first meeting will be at 7 p.m. Aug. 13 in the meeting room of the east Columbia branch library, 6600 Cradlerock Way. Anyone interested is welcome to attend.