Editor’s note: The Chronicle will be featuring stories about the post, including profiles of members and activities the post has been involved in throughout the past 100 years. Watch for future articles in the weekend edition of The Chronicle and www.omakchronicle.com
OKANOGAN — The Okanogan American Legion Post 56 will be celebrating its centennial this year. The legion was established in 1919, the same year the national organization started.
The American Legion was founded in March 1919 in Paris, France, by U.S. World War I military personnel stationed there.
The Okanogan Post filed its application Oct. 2, 1919; it was approved Oct. 13. The first commander of the post was John M. Hubbard, with 15 original charter members. By 1925, the post had 74 members.
Members have to have served in the military in a war time period. Gulf War open eligibility, which began in August of 1990, is still open.
Post 56 currently has 42 members, but only about 15 active members who show up for the monthly business meeting the third Monday of each month.
The youngest member, a Marine who served in Afghanistan, is 25. Alex Wheeler is the sole remaining member who served in World War II. Three or four active members served in Vietnam, several served in Korea, and three members are veterans of the Gulf War.
Eric Fritts, a member who served in the military during the Gulf War, is serving as post commander for his second year. His father, Gene Fritts, served as commander for four years.
“I’ve been a member here since 2015, and in that time we’ve gone from 52 members to 42,” said Fritts. “It declines every year. We don’t gain members as quickly as we lose them; not from them quitting but passing away.”
Fritts said membership in all military service organizations has died down across the U.S.
“The value of a service organization is not well publicized and known,” said Fritts. “Our community knows what our veterans’ needs are, but they don’t know the American Legion role completely. We are trying this year to re-educate and re-energize the community support for the post.”
Fritts, who is the veterans service counselor at the U.S. Armed Forces Legacy in Tonasket, said the post helps veterans with the same things as the Legacy, including securing benefits and health care.
Fritts is also the service officer at the post, and said that while all American Legion officers are certified, he is also accredited.
“Certified officers have to send their stuff through an accredited officer at the state level, so it goes faster for me,” said Fritts.
The post also guides veterans with resource direction through a program called Support Services for Veterans Families, managed by Shane Barton of Community Action.
Fritts said the Okanogan post hosts the Veterans Administration mobile medical bus about five times a year when it comes to town from the VA in Spokane. Local veterans can get exams, prescription renewals and check-ups at the post, rather than traveling to Spokane.
“We also do community events, such as the honor guard for fallen veterans,” said Fritts. “We say a prayer for the deceased vet, the flag is unfolded and opened up and pulled tight. The honor guard fires their volley, the bugle plays taps, then the flag is re-folded and presented to surviving relatives.”
The Okanogan post’s most recent honor guard was performed for Edward Terney Feb. 1. Terney was a veteran who left high school to enlist in the Navy. His service began Sept. 15, 1945, and he remained in the Navy for 26 years before retiring.
Fritts said the American Legion can help arrange for families to get flags for presentation at the funeral.
The Okanogan post is also seen with the color guard leading Conconully’s Fourth of July Parade and at Okanogan Days.
True to the WWI veterans’ original vision of the American Legion being dedicated to four pillars of service and advocacy for veterans, military personnel, youth and patriotic values, the Okanogan post provides two scholarships a year for Okanogan High School students headed to college or trade schools.
Unlike many American Legion posts which raise money through sales of food and drinks, Post 56 is able to raise money only through rental of the facility, which the American Legion owns.
“We need to rent it out two times a month to cover the $200 cost of keeping it open,” said Fritts. His father wrote a grant to get the kitchen remodeled five years ago. Working with Dan Swory of the Omak Home Depot, who donated materials and labor, the kitchen was outfitted with two stoves, a refrigerator, cabinetry and new floor tile.
The post is at 1153 N. Second Ave, just south of the Okanogan County Historical Museum.
The American Legion 100th Anniversary mantra is “Legacy and Vision” — both a celebration of past accomplishments and a renewal of the organization’s resolve to serve communities, states and the nation for a second century.