by Debbie Griffin
Special to the Star News
National American Legion Commander Charles Schmidt visited Elk River the afternoon and evening of Feb. 8 as part of a tour that included four days and 10 Minnesota Legion posts.
The plan had included a veterans awareness walk from Post 112 on Railroad Drive to the Mississippi River, but subzero wind chills convinced the crowd to do the walk inside. Schmidt and Minnesota American Legion Commander Denise Milton led a crowd of people wearing yellow T-shirts for a few laps around the inside of the building before everyone began arriving for supper.
Many representatives from Elk River, as well as Princeton, Zimmerman and other posts gathered to hear the national commander speak. Elk River Legion member and former commander, Mike Beyer, said it is an honor to have the national commander come and is the second such visit for Elk River in as many years.
Sons of the American Legion sweated it out in the kitchen cooking roast beef and mashed potatoes with green beans. Students from DECA, the Distributive Education Clubs of America, cleared dishes and made and served desserts. Legion Auxiliary members had prepared the building, tables and T-shirts and helped with the meal, among other things.
Schmidt gestured around and said, “I’m humbled to be national commander.”
He emphasized during his presentation how it took all the branches of their membership, including the Legion (motorcycle) Riders, to serve the country’s veterans and their families. He said he’d like for the overall organization to work together and meet a goal of raising a total of $2 million divided evenly between training for veterans services officers and temporary financial assistance for families.
The national commander also said if the organization is at 2.2 million members now, he’d like for everyone to recruit at least one member and grow the Legion family to 4.4 million. “Why not?” Schmidt challenged.
He pointed out that the nation’s number of veterans is growing, and some have a long wait for services.
“By training our service officers to help other veterans, we’re helping veterans,” he said.
The temporary financial assistance helps both families going through hard times and children who have a lost one or even both parents. He said the national organization raised nearly $800,000 for the cause last year, and he wanted to top that amount.
Schmidt talked about the pride of leading such a great organization, which will celebrate its 98-year anniversary in March. He announced the theme for his year in office is “Carry the Legacy.” He talked about the Legion’s accomplishments over time such as a past Legion commander penning the G.I. Bill of Rights, and Legion effort prompting the start of what is now the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Look what the Legion has done all these years, since 1919,” he said.
He said the organization looks to its four pillars for guiding principles: veterans’ health and rehabilitation, national security, Americanism, and children and youth. Schmidt called the members a “wonderful family” and urged them to “make something good happen” and accentuate the positive.
Commander’s story starts in Missouri
Schmidt told a little of his own story and how it had come to give him a keen appreciation for the Legion – and how he almost didn’t join. The commander served 28 years in the Air Force, and his older brother had advised him several times to join the American Legion in their now-defunct rural Missouri town. Schmidt was about to depart from a visit home when his brother mentioned Legion membership again at the airport terminal.
Schmidt relented and said, “OK, go ahead and sign me up.” He had no idea that nonchalant comment would lead to a whole other family plus a national commander’s tour that includes a total of about 141 posts in 26 states.
Two years later when he visited home again and saw folks he knew, he learned that his brother had been paying his dues while he was away – and that he owed the adjutant general $20. His brother’s wisdom became even clearer after Schmidt’s retirement in 1993, when he called the base to schedule a physical only to be told, “Sir, we do not take care of retirees anymore.”
Schmidt lives in Hines, Oregon, with his wife, Linda. The couple has two daughters, five grandsons and a granddaughter. They met after he descended from a remote-mountaintop assignment, and he eventually transferred his membership to the Harney County Post 63 in Burns, Oregon.
The veteran served – technically – 27.5 years in the Air Force, attended officer training school and served on assignments in several domestic states as well as England, Germany, the Philippines and Vietnam. His list of earned medals is long but includes a Bronze Star and awards for meritorious service, good conduct, Vietnam Service, expert marksmanship and multiple others.
Schmidt left the service with the rank of major.