With the town of Fort Gibson, Okla., experiencing the worst flooding in its history, members of Frank Gladd American Legion Post 20 knew it was time to step up.
“As soon as we saw the situation we decided we were going to feed everybody,” said Tim Smith, who serves as Post 20’s commander, Oklahoma’s National Executive Committeeman and is a past department commander.
A charter post from 1919, Post 20 was faced with declining membership with just 28 members when Smith took over in 2010. Now, with 230 members, the post was ready to help when needed.
“We have a very strong heritage here and our growth is a testament to following the four pillars of The American Legion and participating in its programs,” Smith said. “You will get stronger, you will grow, you will influence more people than you can imagine and you will be a rock for the community to stand by. We proved that through this disaster.”
Following flooding, post members served over 10,000 meals and the post itself became a hub for locals to congregate, get a meal, charge their phones and apply for emergency assistance. In the coming weeks, the post is also hosting a home cleanup seminar and offering some free medical services.
Michael Sharpe, a Vietnam-era veteran, is the mayor of Fort Gibson and a member of Post 20.
“I am proud of the way this town came together and I am proud of the way this post has worked really hard when we needed it most,” he said.
Two weeks after the disaster, Post 20 is looking to help in other ways.
“Now we move on to the second phase of the recovery, which is going site-to-site visiting members, delivering snacks and water and picking up their spirits and let them know we’re not forgetting about them,” Smith said.
A tour of the town of Fort Gibson today shows water receded but a town still in need of help.
Navigating road closures and avoiding scattered debris and sinkholes, Smith and his vice commander Jim Quinn lead a convoy through typically familiar neighborhoods that look very different.
At Jack Lloyd’s house, you can see his barn still underwater and when he jokes about being able to fish from inside his home you know he is only half kidding.
In his time of greatest need, Lloyd, an Army veteran, still has been involved in helping at the post and his loyalty has been repaid by his fellow members who helped save his cherished American flag and helped it fly again.
Outside of Wayne Osburn’s house, there is a water mark near the top of his white picket fence.
The Korean War veteran has been a Post 20 member for almost 50 years. His daughter Lisa reflected on the first 10 days since the family lost everything and talked about Post 20’s assistance saying, “They have fed everyone breakfast, lunch and dinner. They have grants they are giving out. I can’t imagine trying to get through this without The American Legion and the Emergency Resource Center.”
That Emergency Resource Center, led by volunteer Haley Norman, is a free donation-based grocery store located in a high school gymnasium for locals to pick up emergency needs.
“The American Legion post has been amazing,” Norman said. “They have been serving hot meals since the beginning and have been supplying our volunteers meals here as well to keep us running.”
Norman has been most impressed by how much the community has come together. “There are people who lost their homes and they still come here to volunteer every day to help. The recovery is just beginning so if anyone is considering donating, I would say to do it. We need your help.”
Smith echoed those thoughts, emphasizing the importance of donations to The American Legion’s National Emergency fund.
“We are going to continue working hard getting people applications for the National Emergency Fund, which is set up for American Legion Family members to get immediate aid up to $3,000 in reimbursement for displacement or repairs to your home,” he said. “It is a fund that is really effective and it helps and all of the money donated is returned to veterans. I could show you several people right now at our post that are going to get that grant. It is how The American Legion supports our members and our veterans. Being a member of The American Legion means we have programs that put your talents to work and we have nonprofits that help you when you have hardship.”
To donate to the National Emergency Fund, click here.
In addition to disaster relief, Post 20 also realized the importance of fulfilling its patriotic duty in these harrowing times.
Starting in 2011, members of the post establish a Trail of Honor each Memorial Day, lining the road to the Fort Gibson National Cemetery with 650 flags.
Smith was unsure whether it was appropriate to continue the Trail of Honor in light of the disaster, but numerous community members requested it and over 150 volunteers stepped up understanding the importance of continuing the tradition.
“Memorial Day here is an emotional day for us. On Memorial Day we go out of our way to do our patriotic duty to honor the 25,000 soldiers buried in the Fort Gibson National Ceremony,” Smith said. “We want people to really to understand what the flag is stands for. We found a way to get the flags up, even during devastation, because if you let little things get in your way you lose the meaning behind it. It was a very good morale booster for the whole town of Fort Gibson.”
“Our post is very strong on patriotism and this shows what it means to us. Sure it might just be a piece of cloth with some colors, but it is what they stand for. The flag is a symbol of hope. The American Legion is a symbol for hope.”