The great and immortal founding father George Washington said to “associate with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for it is better to be alone than in bad company.”
To be a part of a fraternal order is to stand by and lift up companions whenever called upon, no matter the circumstance and to take pride in standing beside those who stand by you.
In that sense, it is fitting that the American Legion was born from an unshakable brotherhood formed by young men who endured an unimaginable hell on earth in the trenches of World War I.
The manner in which the United States’ armies have been conscripted over time has changed, but during the early 1910s, the men of the area volunteered to fight for their country in droves.
Unlike some of the wars to come, when these men went into the service together with their brothers and neighbors, they fought together, they died together and those lucky few returned home together.
The American Legion Post 137 charter was signed Oct. 15, 1920 by 150 of these men from a generation long passed. Led by first commander Joseph Westemeier, who is buried in Dyersville, they began their operations in what is locally referred to as the old Tegeler Dairy building.
As these men came together to support each other and provide their families a community that fostered a sense of belonging and kinship, it wasn’t long before strife in Europe reached its long and ugly arm back into the American Heartland.
When it became apparent that World War I was not in fact the “war to end all wars,” more of the greater Dyersville area’s native sons soon also found themselves oceans away from the rolling, fertile ground of eastern Iowa.
But when they returned, they found a shoulder to lean on with WWI veterans. In fact, it was those WWI veterans that helped to fight for the rights that those WWII veterans and all veterans to come enjoy.
These WWI veterans knew all too well the difficulty in getting just repayment for their sacrifice. During the Great Depression when all were suffering, Congress passed the World War Adjusted Act of 1924, which aimed to assist veterans by providing them a bonus for the number of days they served. However, most would not see a single red cent in compensation for nearly 20 years.
Harry W. Colmery, a former national commander of the American Legion, is largely credited with drafting The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 — commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights, that has gone on to assist millions of his brothers in arms.
That legislation also helped thousands of young men afford to go to college or a trade school or build businesses. To this day, because of that effort, colleges are still the home to children and even grandchildren of those veterans, all of whom are getting a chance at a better life because of the efforts of their fathers before them.
Unfortunately, even more was asked of fighting age men in the decades to come all over the globe, sending Americans to fight in Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, the Gulf War and the Global War on Terror.
While experiences and hardship varied between the men, an unbreakable sense of brotherhood has brought them together under the roof of Post 137.
In 1971, they moved into the upstairs of the Dyersville Memorial Building before eventually moving to its current location in 2000, which used to be the old Dyersville fire station, where members can congregate to plan, assist and preserve a way of life.
A tradition of honor
The unwavering reverence the men of Post 137 cannot be questioned — regardless of age or physical condition, you would be hard pressed to find any unlocked joints as Old Glory passes by when Legionnaires are standing at attention.
Over the last few decades, the Honor Guard has become a pillar of immense pride within the community, one that has helped to define the organization as outstanding.
It is in this spirit that the Post 137 Color Guard is so well renown by not only area locals, but all those who visit and witness these men carrying out a solemn and sacred duty to this country’s most important symbol.
This adoration for a symbol that many brave men have followed into battle in the name of protecting the values and people of a great nation was not lost on one visitor who has surely spent and gave more than the average man in dedication to his country.
On Sept. 1, 2019, Retired US Army Colonel Bill Kiley, a member of American Legion Post 694 out of Northport, N.Y., just like a famous line from a movie of the same name, found himself at the Field of Dreams in Iowa for reasons he couldn’t even fathom.
As he stood in the bleachers, oldest son and granddaughter in tow, Kiley was waiting to pay respect to the national colors like many of us have done so many times at the beginning of an event, but what he saw next took him by surprise.
The flags, carried by Post 137, suddenly emerged from the tall standing corn in right field.
“I cannot adequately describe the feelings and emotions that I experienced as I watched the members of your Post advance the colors across the field,” Kiley wrote in a letter to fellow Legionnaires. “No military commander could have asked more of their troops in serving as a Color Guard. Despite the terrain, every member stood erect and marched in step as forward you journeyed. Perhaps it was the culmination of a wonderful and emotion-filled day at the Field of Dreams with my oldest son and my recent college graduate granddaughter, but the tears were rolling down my face as I saluted the colors and our national anthem.
“I could not leave Iowa to head back to New York without sending this message of appreciation to each of you. I render a well-deserved hand-salute to each of you, my colleagues, for your continued service to our county. May God bless you and your loved ones.”
Visibility within the community is important for any organization, and the Legion is no exception. Whenever called upon to represent their country at any of Dyersville or the surrounding area’s special events, it can almost be guaranteed the Post will make an appearance.
Aside from special events, like that witnessed by Kiley at the Field of Dreams, the Post will make an appearance at all funerals for veterans and Legion members when requested by the family.
In addition, the Post has 18 scheduled Honor Guard events throughout the year, typically beginning with the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dyersville mid-March to the numerous Veterans’ Day events Nov. 11.
Fraternity, lasting legacy
Today, Post 137 also serves as a vehicle to help veterans navigate an often slow, cumbersome and overly-bureaucratic system to get them access to their hard-earned benefits.
When a veteran goes to the hospital with a service-related condition, paperwork can also be a nightmare, but the Post has been fighting to make that process easier. Previously, if a veteran went in for an appointment, instructed the hospital to bill the VA but the VA didn’t respond within the hospital’s billing window, the payment went straight back to the veteran. If that bill wasn’t paid right away while the veteran was trying to rectify the situation with the VA, the bill would garner a penalty and be sent to a collection agency. At that point, the VA would more or less wash its hands.
But with the new program being utilized, veterans can notify the billing department of their status and the bill will get paid when the VA gets around to paying them, absolving the veteran of the billing headache, thanks in part to advocacy from the American Legion.
The Post also prides itself in actively assisting those who are actively assisting the country.
Getting care packages to those overseas has become an important duty for Post 137 over the years, as many of its members still harbor fond memories of what those packages meant during their service.
So it makes sense that members have no qualms spending a lot of time and energy securing the funding and supplies to bring a little taste of home to those who are surely missing it.
In a letter from an active duty care package recipient who asked not to be named, the impact of the gesture was apparent.
“I love getting mail and this was unexpected,” he wrote. “Thanks for adding the cards from the local school kids, that really touched me. I don’t do this for the recognition, I do this because it is the right thing to do and I want to make the world a better place for not only my family, but for everyone. From the bottom of my heart, thank you so much for the package.”
They say a man dies two deaths, the first when he stops breathing and the second when his name is breathed for the last time — for Post 137, caring for fellow servicemen doesn’t stop after the last prayer of a funeral has been uttered and the sod has been rolled back over the grave.
Hundreds of hours have been collectively spent fundraising and volunteering time and energy to ensure the final resting place of fellow servicemen are preserved with dignity in the area’s local cemeteries.
Not long ago, when the Post caught word of a nearly-abandoned cemetery on the outskirts of Worthington that was home to a Civil War veteran, it sprang into action.
Upon arrival, the scene was grim — most of it had fallen into great disrepair, but the Legionnaires cut down trees, cleared brush and even fixed some of the stones.
Now the cemetery is in the caring hands of the Sons of the American Legion, a group who could help preserve the Legion’s mission for generations to come.
Within Post 137’s jurisdiction are numerous cemeteries that it makes sure to honor when called upon: Mt. Hope Cemetery is the final resting place for 23 veterans, St. Francis Xavier Cemetery 546, St. Paul’s Cemetery 126, Rockville Cemetery two, Baptist Cemetery one and there are a total of nine veterans who are buried overseas: Lawrence F. Kruse (WWII, Punchbowl Nation Cemetery, Hawaii), John E. Rahe (WWII, prison ship sunk in the South Pacific), Clarence T. Ries (WWII, Philippine Islands), Carl J. Willenborg (WWII, Punchbowl National Cemetery, Hawaii), Raymond C. Kirsch (WWII, buried in Italy), Gerald L. Klaren (WWII, buried at sea), Andrew W. Marbach (WWI, buried at sea), Mathias Marbach (WWI, buried in France) and Henry B Uhlenkamp (WWI, buried in France).
Another one of Post 137’s lasting legacies will be the fifth grade flag essay contest, which began in 1997 in local schools.
Fifth graders were charged with writing a story about what the flag means to them and the contest’s popularity soon grew and was adopted by other posts. Initially, the contest was just at the district level, but soon it was adopted at the state level and is now a time-honored tradition in Iowa classrooms.
Looking toward the future, some veterans aren’t exactly sure what the fate of the American Legion will be.
While Post 137 currently boasts a healthy 331-strong membership, participation has been declining in other parts of the state. It can be looked at as a double-edged sword, but the fact of the matter is there are fewer new veterans compared to generations past.
Reasoning about why the Legion is becoming less active in some areas is often disputed. It will eventually become a numbers game to keep afloat but organizations like the Sons of the American Legion and the Women’s Auxiliary will help.
Some theorize that just like with veterans before them, younger veterans aren’t joining in the numbers they used to because family life has become so much more involved with the nearly endless amount of activities of today’s children. The hope is that, also like past veterans, they will join once things slow down and help keep the American Legion one of the community’s most active organizations.
Regardless of what the future holds for Post 137, one thing is certain — their service, dedication and lasting impact on the community will never be forgotten.