American Legion Post 53 plans to merge with Post 828 in a new building in San Jacinto
■ Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter
In a sit-down interview with Russ Mills, executive board member/finance officer/committee chairman for the merger between the Hemet and San Jacinto American Legion posts, he revealed what seems to be a schism between American Legion Post 53 in Hemet and the Hemet City Council, especially Mayor Linda Krupa.
The rift didn’t happen overnight, said Mills, who feels slighted that other organizations were given the American Legion’s prime spot in the Hemet Christmas parade.
“It really began after Krupa became mayor,” he said. “For 72 years, Legion Post 53 led the annual Christmas Parade. In recent years the veterans have been shoved back in the lineup where they often had to tromp through horse manure. That is not the way you treat men and women who fought and were ready to give up their lives just so such a parade could take place.”
However, Stephany Borders, coordinator for the event, stated that color guards and bands have rotated positions leading the parade for at least the last 30 years. But did it really begin there?
Silver Star medalist pushed aside
“On Veterans Day at the Gibbel Park event, the Post made arrangements with Mayor Krupa to make a presentation to Bill Harrison, the author of ‘Six Days on a Raft,’” said Mills. “Mr. Harrison was one of five servicemen who survived the sinking of their ship by the Japanese during World War II. They were stranded in the Pacific Ocean for six days before being rescued. Bill is 90-plus years old. It came to my attention that he was still making his way around in a manual wheelchair. That didn’t seem right, so I contacted Mike Walker at Empire Mobility to arrange for a power chair to be presented at him at the Veterans Day celebration event at the monument in Gibbel Park this year.”
Mills says the presentation of the chair was arranged at the Veterans Day planning meeting with the city of Hemet prior to Veterans Day.
“However, when the day of the event arrived, we were not allowed to award the chair to Mr. Harrison in front of the monument honoring those who died in battle, but were shoved off [to] the old basketball court, where cars were being displayed on the fringes of the park.”
Was any reason given for the change in plans?
“No,” said Mills. “Stephany Borders, coordinator for the event, told me that she was acting on instructions given to her by Mayor Linda Krupa.”
Golden Era Productions gives veterans the red carpet treatment
After the presentation could be made, American Legion Post 53 quickly abandoned the park, moving on to Golden Era Productions in San Jacinto, and as Mills puts it, “I’ve never been more blessed to be a veteran in my life. They welcomed us like celebrities with a wonderful ceremony that included a flyover, mounted horsemen, bagpipes, youth groups, ROTC youngsters conducting flag ceremonies, choirs and solo [performances] of the “Star Spangled Banner” and “Amazing Grace.” An acoustical guitarist performed “Remember Me,” which is a famous song honoring disabled veterans and those who died in the service of our country. Many of us were brought to tears. Myself, post executive member Dell Morehouse, among others, walked out of there totally blessed.”
In addition to the performances and flyover, lunch and a golf tournament were provided.
“To top it all off, we were fed a wonderful lunch,” said Mills. “Afterward Linda Greilich, who operates Golden Era Golf Course and Clubhouse, provided us with a beautiful golf tournament–all at no cost. Golden Era is very supportive of the veterans and Ms. Greilich was an absolute angel.”
How Russ Mills became involved in Post 53 Mills moved to the San Jacinto Valley in October 2016.
“My daughter was involved with other councils for Boy Scouts of America (BSA) in Chino Hills. She came to me and said, ‘Dad, San Jacinto and Hemet are lost as far as scouting goes. The units are small: seven boys, four boys, three boys; most are ready to disband. I think you could improve their membership.’”
So he spoke to Henry Blackadar, the current charter organization representative for BSA, who was stepping down due to other commitments with his church. That’s how Mills took over Blackadar’s spot.
“I promised to rebuild the program. With the assistance of Melissa Cube of BSA, Earl Jackson from Quail Valley Pack 2228 and Larry Cole, scoutmaster of Troop 6006 and others, our program grew 300 percent in the valley. All units have at least doubled and some have even tripled in size.”
He shared his accomplishments with BSA with Krupa, hoping to get council support of the scouting organization.
“In a meeting with Mayor Krupa, I explained our wish to grow the program and get kids off the streets and into the scouting program away from hanging out, cluttering up walls with graffiti, doing drugs and failing in school,” said Mills. “Scouting teaches young boys moral values and honesty through peerage and common interests. I’m speaking from personal experience as a 7-year-old boy from the ghetto whose life was saved and changed because of the Boy Scouts of America.”
Mayor Krupa promises to ‘make it happen’
“In the process of our discussion, I had one request of Mayor Krupa–I wanted her promise that the American Legion would lead the Christmas Parade this year. These are veterans of conflict who send a military honor detail to the Riverside National Cemetery once a month to do the gun salutes and ceremonies for our fallen veterans and their loved ones. They do this freely on their own time,” said Mills.
“Mayor Krupa said, ‘I can make that happen.’ With the Christmas Parade date nearing, I approached Stephany Borders and Mayor Krupa and asked them what we would have to do to get the Legion at the front of the parade. We’d filled out all the papers, submitted our application but hadn’t received any response. Stephany Borders said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll give you a call.’ Mayor Krupa said nothing.
“On the morning of the Veterans Day I asked Stephany, ‘When do we get our position assignment at the front of the parade as promised by Mayor Krupa?’”
Mills claims Borders responded: “The Mayor said she never made you that promise.’ The Mayor decided to place an ROTC group and a band in front of the parade, so they could, ‘think they’ve led a parade.’”
“My first thoughts were, ‘They’re not the ones who defended our country and risked their lives for our daily freedoms and being the oldest nonprofit organization in the city, it is a disservice to the veterans of this community.’”
Krupa and Borders say rotation is the norm
The newspaper contacted Mayor Krupa for comment, who stated that she was not aware of the alleged conflict between the city and American Legion Post 53 and feels that perhaps a miscommunication occurred.
“I don’t make promises I can’t keep and since I am NOT the final say in the parade lineup, I would never make a statement as foolish as ‘I can make that happen,’” stated Krupa in an email. “The policy of the Christmas Parade committee has always been to rotate bands and color guards.”
She further stated that the city has always had a very good relationship with Post 53 and “we have worked with them on the annual Veterans Day ceremony, the Active Duty Military Banner program and many other events. Therefore, if Don Simpson, Matt Casey, Joe or Jeri Johnston or any of the many others have an issue with me, they know they only have to call.”
Borders further clarified the issue regarding rotation of bands and color guards in an email.
“Mr. Mills only provided half of my answer to him during the Veteran’s Day event. I told him it was the policy of the parade that we rotate color guards along with bands. We have had as many as eight color guards in the parade before and to provide each of them the same opportunity, to lead, we rotate the entries, just as we rotate the band positions in the parade,” explained Borders. “The band that is first becomes last and the one that was second becomes first next year. In the past, it is true American Legion Post 53 had led the Christmas Parade. The same is true with Tahquitz JROTC, The Riverside County Mounted Posse and the United States Forest Service Mounted Patrol.”
Border explained that the participation of so many important organizations led to the establishment of a color guard rotation, similar to the band rotation.
“In my discussion with Mr. Mills, I gave this example of why we feel it is important to have this rotation. The valley is made up of good students. When they lead a parade it accomplishes two things. It allows the community to see how many good students we are fortunate to have, who are the future citizens of our town, and it also provides the students a chance to feel a sense of pride as they lead a parade. For many it is a rare chance to be someone special.”
The Christmas parade is a community event representing the entire community, added Borders.
“When American Legion Post 53 or 848 or VFW Post 2266 leads the parade, it reminds the community of the great service and sacrifice the members of these organizations have given for our country,” she stated. “When the Riverside County Sheriff Mounted Posse leads the parade, it reminds the community of the service and sacrifice the members of all law enforcement make to ensure the safety of our valley. When the United States Forest Service Mounted Patrol leads the parade, it reminds the community of the service and sacrifice the members of the Forestry make to protect our National Forests and the communities that reside in them. When a school band leads the parade, it reminds the community that the youth of [our] community is important and that they are striving to be good members of our community. Each one of these color guards is equally important and holds a trusted and respected place in the community and in our parade.”
After hearing Borders’ explanation, Mills advised Borders that he would bring the subject up to his executive board.
“Our executive board voted unanimously not to participate in the Christmas events. The Board’s decision was confirmed by the general membership. People have come to me and asked why we weren’t in the parade. Now they know the reason,” said Mills.
Veterans log thousands of service hours to community annually
During the past year, veterans from Legion Post 53 have dedicated more than 10,000 hours of volunteer service to our community, according to statistics provided by Mills.
“We have supported Hemet city officials in everything they asked. American Legion Post 53 has been at the city’s beck and call whenever they wanted something from us,” said Mills. “Whether it be helping elderly people unable to clean up their yards to avoid financial penalties from code enforcement or other assistance, we do it because we love this community.”
Proposed merger with San Jacinto Post 848
Mills stated that Post 53 will likely participate in holiday events sponsored by Golden Era Golf Course and the city of San Jacinto next year, because the merger between Hemet Post 53 and San Jacinto Post 848 with membership doubling, a new headquarters is in the works–in San Jacinto.
“Since the city of Hemet has shown neither support nor inclination for us to remain in Hemet and have given us no feedback on any attempts we’ve made to pursue the new Post within the city limits of Hemet, sometime in the next six months American Legion Post 848 from San Jacinto will more than likely merge with Hemet’s Post 53,” said Mills. Construction is anticipated to begin in September 2019.
“From there additional programs will be provided through other organizations, making it a veterans service center for the whole community.”
The Post also supports other organizations, such as Cub, Boy and Girl Scouts, Native Daughters, Tops, Military Explorers, ROTC and Sons of Veterans.
“Any youth organization in the city can approach us and we will accommodate them through donation or other arrangement,” said Mills.
Mills feels that San Jacinto is the right fit for the new post.
“Mayor Scott Miller and the San Jacinto City Council have their arms wide open to the American Legion. Mayor Miller told us, ‘We will help you with whatever it takes to build your new post in our city,’” claims Mills. “I have received the exact opposite from Mayor Krupa and the Hemet City Council. Why should we spend our time and effort on a useless endeavor? We will build our new post and it is going to be located in San Jacinto because they want it and Hemet has shown no inclination at all in cooperating with the local Legion Post 53.”
Mills says outlying communities have also contacted him to collaborate.
“We have also been approached by Winchester and other surrounding cities interested in possibly joining us in this endeavor, with possibly a Veterans of Foreign War facility in the same complex,” said Mills. “It promises to be a unified center for veterans and their families who have served their country and deserve more than lip service.
Mills said the American Legion has an interest in local politics and is currently pursuing the daughter of combat veteran and Silver Star recipient Don Simpson to run for Hemet City Council.
My name is Rusty Strait and I welcome your comments.