Full service

A stop at Louisville’s American Legion Post 111 uncovers people looking to serve, and serve again

Jeremy Nicholson/Wikimedia Commons

It’s Bingo Night at the American Legion Post 111 in Louisville. It’s held every Monday in their building tucked east of downtown, and barely visible from cars speeding down the highway farther east.

I stop in hoping to talk about, what else, guns and Trump. But all the veterans — and their sons and wives and daughters — want to talk about is fireworks.

“Since 1993 the American Legion has run the fireworks for the City of Louisville,” says Sons Post Commander Jeff Oneal. “One member has their pyro license. Any member that wants to join, they volunteer, and basically we put the show on. We go buy the fireworks. We’re there from 6 a.m. until midnight. We set the fireworks up, we squib them, and then we set the fireworks off. Then we undo everything. We do this for the people of Louisville, and everybody thinks the City of Louisville puts it on. But it’s members of the American Legion that put in their donation hours. And so the people of Louisville do not know that the person who has the pyro license is an American Legion member and that a lot of the people they see on the course during the day are all American Legion and/or guests that put in their hours.”

“And we are veterans,” the bartender says.

“If we used the Louisville money,” a voice from the other side of the bar calls, “That shit would be 15 minutes. Ours is 30.”

Oneal adds, “I want to make sure the City of Louisville gets their praise, too. But I also want people to know these are veterans and/or sons or auxiliary that have done this. And this is all volunteer hours. When the (City) has people come in, they’re all paid and they put that on the budget. We put a lot of hours into this.”

There’s a lot of pride, obviously, expressed among the Post 111 members about the fireworks show. When it started, Oneal recalls members “running up and down with lit fuses and then the fireworks going off above their heads.” Now, it’s a much more button-down and standardized approach.

Still I was surprised at the overwhelming sentiment that the service Post 111 was providing to the community was going unheralded. A straw poll in neighboring Gravity Brewing confirmed that most people didn’t know the Legion put on the fireworks display.

On the Legion’s whiteboard calendar, there was a listing written in blue marker for funeral services on July 6 for Bobby Ross, who Oneal calls a “staple” of the Lafayette and Louisville community. It’s Ross’s son, Rick, who helped start the fireworks display in 1993.

Maybe the fireworks display, a gaudy spectacle for the community, means something more intimate to the local veteran community, then. Maybe the loss of Ross, one of the Legion’s oldest members, put the fireworks display into context. Weeks of service, a day of labor, then the fireworks burn bright, and they’re extinguished.

“We’ve lost a couple (Legion members) in the last couple months, and it tears me up because they became my friends,” says Sheila Peck, owner of Gastronauts, a restaurant that uses the Legion kitchen and serves the Legion members their meals.

“You know,” Oneal says. “We have not seen the influx of new members, which we hopefully would have thought, from the Gulf War and Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t think they even know what American Legions or VFWs are, what they stand for and what they do. We just got a new, young couple, a husband and wife who were in the Marines, they just happened to look us up, and they didn’t know what it stands for. We need younger people to start getting involved with organizations like this.”

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, suicide risk is 22 percent higher for veterans than non-veterans. About 10-15 percent of Gulf War and Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from PTSD. The rate is higher for Vietnam War vets. Half of all veterans are under the age of 50, and it’s estimated that 1.2 million veterans are at risk of homelessness.

“Whether or not you even know about it before you even go into the military,” Oneal says to veterans, “when you get back to the States, when you get settled, maybe go and talk to your local American Legion.”

The Legion offers support through its network of veterans and family members, but they also provide opportunities for volunteering and engaging in the community. It helps veterans get in contact with doctors and specialists for their physical and mental health needs. Post 111 is located near a cryotherapy office that veterans from all around the country visit.

“That helps veterans with major wounds,” Oneal says. “They come in and look for the local American Legion or VFW, and we’ll take them in and welcome them in and buy them drinks or dinner.”

It’s clear all Oneal and the veterans of Post 111 want is a little credit for their fireworks show. It’s easy, however, to leave wondering if they can write their name in vibrant colors in the sky and still not get credit, then what are we celebrating on the Fourth of July?