Called to Serve
American Legion Hale-Combest Post 315 Wylie, Texas
By Sonia Duggan
The American Legion has been long known as an organization where local veterans get together and serve other veterans, patriotic causes and people within a community.
Originally chartered and incorporated by Congress in 1919 as a patriotic veterans organization devoted to mutual helpfulness, the American Legion has grown to be the nation’s largest wartime veterans service organization. Today, it is also one of the largest nonprofits in the U.S. with more than 13,000 posts worldwide and a membership base of almost two million.
In the early 20s, the Legion was instrumental in the formation of the U.S. Veterans Bureau, the earlier version of the Veterans Administration. The group also sought to protect the American flag from physical desecration by drafting the “Flag Code” which was later adopted by Congress in 1942. Over the next several decades the Legion instituted many programs designed to support veterans and America’s youth.
Millions of dollars in donations have been raised at the local, state and national levels to help veterans and their families during times of need and to provide college scholarship opportunities.
In the Wylie area, the American Legion Hale-Combest Post 315 Wylie, Texas has been busy supporting veterans and community programs for the last nine years.
Memorial leads to Legion
In 2009, a chance meeting between veterans Chuck Flesch, Don Lange and Warner Washington led Flesch to mention that his wife (also a veteran) was upset about the fact that there was no place in Wylie where she could go to honor her veteran father.
The conversation planted a seed, and just a year later, the three men, along with a committee of around 15 people, witnessed the dedication of the Wylie Veterans Memorial in Olde City Park on Memorial Day 2010. The event was the culmination of hard work and dedication on behalf of many individuals and the city.
“Once the memorial was built, the city said who’s going to take care of it?” Don said.
The committee accepted the challenge and began the search to find the right group to take care of, and administrate, the Wylie Veterans Memorial.
“We originally used the Chamber of Commerce to handle the funding and knew we had to come up with a nonprofit organization to administer the funding and handle the memorial,” Don said.
With a little research on behalf of the industrious group, the right fit turned out to be the American Legion.
Once the group put the word out that they were going to start a post, they were able to charter the post.
“We held our first meeting at the National Guard Armory in Wylie on July 30, 2011 at 1000 hours. At that time, we signed up 17 new members and three transfers,” Flesch said.
The naming of the post, according to Don and his wife Mary, was largely due to the research efforts of Flesch. He discovered Lanny Hale and Jerry Combest, both WHS Class of 1961 graduates, were killed in action in Vietnam in 1968 just six months apart.
After the Hale and Combest families gave their blessing on the name, the new charter officially became the American Legion Hale-Combest Post 315.
In its first year, Post 315 exceeded its goal for new members, and by July 2014, they were awarded the Post Excellence Award. To qualify, a post is required to achieve excellence in four areas: membership, youth activities, community service, and support to currently serving troops or veterans.
Don Lange was Post 315 commander until June 2014 when the baton was passed to Ken Smith. Since 2017, Navy veteran Mitchell Swan has led Post 315 as the Commander along with support from the following members: Past Commander and Adjutant Ken Smith, 1st Vice Commander Chuck Davis, 2nd Vice Commander Chuck Flesch, Finance Officer Don Bridges, Service Officer Carl Hinds, Judge Advocate Julie Rogers, Historian Mary Lange, Sergeant at Arms Don Bridges and Chaplain Robert Welch.
The four major principals the post was founded upon are: take care of and administrate the needs of the Veterans Memorial in Olde City Park, provide honor guards and rifle teams as needed for formal occasions and burial details, ensure that youth understand and are trained in proper flag and ceremonial services and what it means to be an American, and to ensure that any person who has served honorably in the United States military is eligible to become a member of the American Legion.
In the last 10 years, the memorial has expanded, and it has truly become a place to visit and reflect upon those who served. The city, says Swan, especially the Parks and Rec department, have been great to work with on the Post 315 memorial.
Three iron benches, each with a different motto, face the flagpole. In addition, engraved memorial stones have been steadily added throughout the years – and are still available to purchase – with the name, rank and branch of veterans – living and deceased.
When WWII veteran and Post 315 member Robert Riley passed away in June 2019, he not only left behind his wife Lorrie, her daughter and granddaughter, he left behind his comrades at Post 315 with whom he served. It was those same friends who cared enough to give him a brief ceremony one Saturday morning at the memorial to honor his life of service.
Since that time, the memorial, says Lorrie, “gives us a place to go and sit and feel near him now.”
Aside from national affairs and community support programs, The American Legion offers a number of family and youth programs. The list is quite extensive, however, most posts focus on a select few says Historian Mary Lange. She says her hot buttons are “The American Legion High School Oratorical Scholarship Program, Texas Boys State and Texas Bluebonnet Girls State” which falls under the American Legion Auxiliary.
The Oratorical program is a Constitution speech contest open to students under 20 years of age. Theobjectives of the program include developing a deeper knowledge and understanding of the U.S. Constitution, giving participating students an opportunity to convey their knowledge in a competitive public speaking environment and offering them a way to win scholarships to further their education.
American Legion Boys State applications are open to male high school students who are in the last semester of their junior year. If selected, boys attend a week-long participatory program at University of Texas where each student actively learns about the operation of local, county, and state government.
Over the years, Lovejoy High School, Community High School, Wylie Preparatory Academy, Wylie High School and Wylie East High School have all had students benefit from Post 315 programs.
Auxiliary reaches community
In November 2019, the American Legion Auxiliary – the world’s largest women’s patriotic service organization – celebrated 100 years of service. Since that time, ALA members have fulfilled their duties with a mission “To advocate for, help, and honor U.S. military, veterans, their families and support The American Legion.”
The Post 315 American Legion Auxiliary started seven years ago, and its first president was Becky Welch, widow of 1Lt Robert “Robby” F. Welch III. Today, Barb Welch, mother of the fallen soldier, serves as president.
Much like the Legion, there are a dozen different programs that ALA supports, and each Auxiliary can focus on ones they would like to offer the community.
Although the group is currently less than 15 members, Barb says they’re always trying to be very creative and very involved in the community.
Americanism programs are key to the Auxiliary as they teach respect for the U.S. and the nation’s flag by providing learning opportunities for what citizens and students need to know.
“We were all set to do a flag folding program at Davis (Elementary) coordinated through the PTA but COVID-19 changed our plans,” Barb said.
The plan was to teach students about flag etiquette, including how to fold a small flag, then the flags would be placed in small “pocket bags” and sent to soldiers.
“It’s a way for them (children) to learn about the etiquette of the flag, how to stand, etc.,” she said.
The Poppy Program is another fundraising and teaching opportunity embraced by ALA members. Millions of poppies are handed out each year in exchange for donations that will be used to assist disabled and hospitalized veterans in communities.
“We also try to educate them about the meaning of the poppy,” Barb said. “We’re trying to get that back in the community.”
The ALA is committed to mentoring youth and sponsoring wholesome programs in the community such as Girls State.
“Girls State is a wonderful way for our kids to understand how our political systems work,” Barb said. “The kids learn how the voting system works. They get to do it at their level.”
The nonpartisan curriculum is taught in a way that the girls can assume government leader roles, campaign in mock parties to become mayors, county and state officials of their ALA Girls State.
The Auxiliary sends 4-5 girls every year to the weeklong immersive program, at a cost of about $650 each, something which Barb said she is very thankful for considering the way Wylie has grown over the last few years.
Community service programs also play a key role in the Auxiliary. The group helps support the Quilts of Valor program, says Barb, by donating funds for fabric to the Farmersville Quilt Guild where she is also a member.
“It was a way for me to work through my loss of Robby,” Barb said. “It helps me. Every donation goes in the coffers to make those quilts.”
In addition, the group stays busy by making and donating bags of necessary items for homeless vets to the North Texas Veterans Center, donating food to the food pantry at the Wylie armory for the reserve units, and by donating 30 boxes of food to the Meals on Wheels program each year. They also support the 1LT Robert Welch III Run for our Heroes race, organized by Becky, the first weekend in April.
The Auxiliary is open to women, or men, who are eligible for membership in The American Legion or anyone who is the directly related to members of the Legion or related to deceased veterans who served in the United States Armed Forces.
Membership criteria expanded
Originally, The American Legion only welcomed veterans who had served in seven war eras, eliminating many veterans who served during undeclared periods of war.
“It was needlessly restrictive, and it was unfair,” Swan said.
In July 2019, President Trump signed the LEGION Act that declares the United States has been in a state of war since Dec. 7, 1941 changing the eligibility criteria to two war eras; from April 6, 1917, to Nov. 11, 1918, and Dec. 7, 1941 to a time later determined by the federal government. The change in membership, according to legion.org, allows approximately 6 million Americans to access programs and benefits for which they had not previously been eligible.
“Because eligibility dates remain open, all active duty members of the United States Armed Forces are eligible to join The American Legion at this time, until the date of the end of hostilities as determined by the government of the United States.”
The American Legion’s success depends entirely on active membership, participation and volunteerism. The organization belongs to the people it serves and the communities in which it thrives.
“They (veterans) have something in them. They just have to serve,” Swan said. “It’s just a nice fit.