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When They Were Soldiers

By: Jan Morgan-Swegle

I’ve heard the saying, “Once a Marine, always a Marine,” and I am sure that’s true, but I think it’s probably true for most military personnel. These are people who answered the call to serve and protect their country and our freedom. Many of them were warriors, fighting for a way of life — a cause that is far more important than many people realize when they take freedom for granted. These warriors crossed oceans, they fought in jungles and they fought in deserts.

You won’t find our veterans on the battlefield anymore. Some of them are alone now, remembering youth and strength and courage as they live out their days in silence. But thanks to the efforts of the John E. Jacobs American Legion Post #68 in Leland, they are not forgotten.

Rick Rogers is a member of American Legion Post #68. As just an act of kindness, he had been visiting Brunswick Cove Living Center, located at 1478 River Road, just south of Belville, where he organized birthday parties for residents who were veterans. When other members of the Post heard about what Rick was doing, they quickly adopted the idea as a Post initiative and helped to not only celebrate birthdays but bring back some well deserved pride, dignity and respect to our veterans and show them that they are not forgotten. Recently, Post #68, installed an Honor Wall at Brunswick Cove with pictures of their 15 veterans in residence wearing their uniforms, with all branches of the service represented.

From this small act of kindness, eight members of Post #68, who call themselves the Cape Fear Fellows, also joined forces as volunteers with the Lower Cape Fear LifeCare System, a network of health service and hospice facilities that can alert Post #68 to the needs of veterans in their care.

According to Post Commander Dan Fortini, it is about veterans honoring veterans. “We go to hospitals, nursing homes or hospice facilities to spend time with our veterans,” she said. “We engage them and talk about their days in the service. Often times, these men and women have kept their military service experiences from their families. We give them the opportunity to open up and talk about where they were, what they did. It can be a welcome release for them.

“In hospice or end of life situations, we do a pinning ceremony to salute their service. The veteran gets a lapel pin shaped like the American flag and a certificate that honors their service to our country. Sometimes the veteran’s family is there and they haven’t heard the military service stories. They weren’t aware of what their loved one did in the service and are often surprised and proud of what they hear,” Fortini said.

Laura Lang, Volunteer Program Coordinator of Lower Cape Fear LifeCare said, that members of Post #68 have been volunteering for several months now. “They have proven to be very professional and invested,” she said. “Thanks to their dedication, numerous veteran patients have been honored and visited. Without their participation, we would not be able to provide these services to as many of our veteran patients as we have.”

The members of American Legion Post #68 stay active in the community in many others ways too. They sponsor scholarship programs for high school students, participate in festivals in Belville and Leland, and they have an annual oratory competition that enables our teens to participate in regional, state and national oratorical competitions. But their main focus is supporting area veterans who are in need. The Post has built handicap ramps for disabled vets, coordinated an annual event that brings various Veterans Administration program representatives to this area to hear concerns of local veterans, and they have designed a program which serves as a model for other American Legion Posts to address Veteran Suicide Awareness.

According to the VA, in 2020, suicide was the seventh leading cause for deaths among veterans. It is estimated that 22 veterans per day across the country commit suicide, with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans being the most at risk.

A report filed on June 27, 2022, by the USO Warrior and Family Centers stated that, “In 2021, research found that 30,177 active duty personnel and veterans who served in the military after 9/11 have died by suicide — compared to the 7,057 service members killed in combat in those same 20 years. That is, military suicide rates are four times higher than deaths that occurred during military operations.”

Like the cycle of life, the cycle of war is inevitable. There will always be conflict somewhere in the world and soldiers being sent to stop it. There will always be differing political opinions that erupt into warfare. There will always be veterans.

I hope when it is their time to be honored and remembered for their service that the men and women of the John E. Jacobs American Legion Post #68 have the opportunity to meet caring veterans that hang their pictures on walls of honor and call our attention to their service. And, I hope when we hear “Taps” being played at a funeral for one of our warriors, we remember that when they were soldiers, they kept us safe. They kept us free.


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