Izzy Abbass envisioned an American Legion post that would be transformative, much like the military has changed to reflect modern times.
“The Army has transformed — we don’t fight on horseback anymore,” said Abbass, commander of Post 5280 in Denver. “As VSOs, we don’t need to be afraid to transform and provide services and an environment that is more conducive to attracting younger veterans into our association. I think that is key because if we are going to maintain our ability to influence legislation to enact strong programs to support all the men and women coming out of the military, we need to makes ourselves more attractive to these veterans.”
Post 5280, which received its charter Nov. 7, is nicknamed the Mile High Post.
“When I started looking at starting a post here in Denver, I was shocked that the number 5280 was not taken,” Abbass said, referring to the number that represents one mile in feet. “It has such a unique meaning to the citizens of Denver that we wanted to proceed forward with it.”
The post’s mission is to address the invisible injuries that men and women are facing when they transition. “Rather than focus on canteen operations, we focus on those big issues that affect our men and women, whether that is PTSD or TBI, suicide ideation, dealing with issues that women face, that LGBT veterans face or the moral injures that veterans face, given their overseas deployments, especially in the war zones,” he said. “We want to focus on those issues and come up with solutions.”
Dan Warvi, the post service officer, admired the Legion’s Four Pillars but was hesitant to become a member. Then he learned of Post 5280’s approach to veterans issues.
“As Izzy and some of the other Global War on Terror vets got together, we said we need to take back the community focus, and we need to focus on what we can do for our community, veterans first,” Warvi said. “What can we offer them that we've experienced?”
The answer was found in the Legion’s guiding principle dating back to 1919.
“It all came back to, ‘Let's embrace the Four Pillars,’” he said. “Let's take those terms that are our old terms and go forward with community service. Once we decided to do that within the framework of the Legion, we started making an impact on the community and veterans.”
Amber Longoria, a Navy veteran who is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, sees Post 5280 as a way that she can connect with other post 9/11 vets who face similar hurdles.
“One of our goals is to really focus on normalizing mental health issues so that people don't feel like monsters or like they're insufficient or broken, that they can seek the help that they actually need so that they can properly function in their lives,” she says.
While Post 5280 is in its infancy, its members have identified helping veterans who suffer from PTSD or other mental issues as a priority. Longoria envisions the post hosting classes for veterans and family members on how to cope and deal with such issues.
“After we’ve finished building our foundation, I would like to have classes where we work on emotional intelligence, exercising and retraining your brain to have a brighter outlook on the world because that would be helpful in the workplace, in your interpersonal relationships, your personal relationships,” says Longoria, the post’s senior vice commander. “My vision is to properly integrate our veterans into the community that is around them.”
Post 5280 is dedicated to serving all veterans. A veteran is a veteran, after all.
That’s why the post joined other veterans service organizations in carrying a 50-foot by 30-foot American flag last summer in the Denver Pride Parade. Post member Sarah Alder helped organize the initiative and was blown away by the support.
“As somebody who is LGBT, it was a way for everybody to come together and honor their service in whatever capacity,” Alder said. “We had over 85 people hand carrying that flag — there are only 34 handles for that flag. I was out of handles. So that was a good problem to have, and it was by far the most profound experience to be able to fold that flag in front of the Capitol building with all servicemembers and family members.”
The post 9/11 veterans take pride in being associated with The American Legion and its century of successes.
Sarah Salazar, the post’s junior vice commander, is grateful that The American Legion ushered in the GI Bill during World War II and updated versions since then. She used it to acquire an associate’s degrees and is now finishing up her bachelor’s at the University of Colorado.
Without it, she would not have gone to college and likely would not have joined the Navy. “You struggle trying to find a foothold in life,” she says about transitioning back to a civilian. “We are so grateful for the GI Bill, so grateful that the Legion pushed for this for the younger vets. … It continues to evolve. The original GI Bill only got better with the post 9/11 GI Bill. It’s a wonderful benefit and I look forward to having it encompass more veterans.”
Abbass values the Legion’s history and legacy.
“When you look at the legacy of The American Legion, it includes the GI Bill that benefitted not only the veterans coming back from World War II, but it has impacted generations of veterans thereafter,” he said. “That overall says a lot about the goal of the Legion, or the importance of the Legion.
“That’s what I think all Legionnaire should do — have a lasting impact that benefits those coming behind us.”
Looking toward the future, Abbass wants Post 5280 to have a large and active membership. “This would be a post that would have a strong Auxiliary — male and female – because they want to continue to support their loved ones who served their spouses who served in the military,” he said. “I want more posts to look to us to learn how to impact their local communities. As VSOs, we need to remember that we are here to serve the entire SVMF community — servicemembers, veterans and families. If we look at that and hold it true, that’s huge.”