Legion Centennial Ride travels through state

Roger Larsen/Plainsman Members of the north to south 2019 American Legion Centennial Ride pose with Legionnaires from Virgil and Wessington Springs Friday, as the riders made a scheduled stop at the Wessington Springs Legion post. Below, Virgil American Legion adjutant Gunner Baartrup signs a banner that the Legion Centennial riders are carrying on their trip.

WESSINGTON SPRINGS – A 28-biker delegation of American Legionnaires braved frequent heavy downpours Friday as they headed south on U.S. Highway 281 to a celebratory rendezvous in Kansas marking the centennial of their organization.
Team Legacy originated at the Canada-North Dakota border, while Team Vision is traveling northward from the Texas-Mexico border. They will meet in Great Bend, Kan.
Along the way, Legionnaires are stopping at as many American Legion posts along the American Legion Memorial Highway as they can.
“Legacy and vision is a phrase the American Legion is using because we have this 100-year history,” said Michael Hjelmstad, a North Dakota native who now lives in Hollywood, Calif.
“That’s the legacy, and the vision is the plan moving forward supporting veterans for another 100 years,” he said.
Each team of motorcycling veterans – varying in age and from several states – is carrying one half of a banner. Post commanders and other representatives are signing the banner at each stop. It will be presented to American Legion National Commander Brett P. Reistad onstage at the 101st American Legion National Convention in Indianapolis in late August.
Hjelmstad, who served a 16-year stint in the Marine Corps, his last deployment in Fallujah, Iraq, has had varying roles with the American Legion since leaving the military.
He is the department vice commander for California and is past commander of the Hollywood post. Also, he works in media communications for the national organization.
He said he was fortunate to be among the storytellers who worked on a documentary noting the Legion centennial this year.
“We traveled around the country,” he said. “We traveled to some of the places where it started out, the founding of the Legion.”
He was asked to accompany Team Legacy on its way to the center of the country to document the event for social media.
“We’re trying to do a little bit different type of storytelling because we’re trying to reach the modern audience,” Hjelmstad said.
Why should veterans join their local post?
“What I tell people is the most important thing the American Legion does for veterans is lobbying,” he said.
“If you join the Legion and you just are a card carrying member, then you’re a valuable member because when the national commander stands up there and says ‘on behalf of two million veterans’ we want it to be on behalf of two million members,” Hjelmstad said.
Congress respects organizations that have large members. “And veterans vote and they recognize that,” he said.
But Legionnaires want to do more than merely carry a membership card. They like getting involved in community projects, like the one in Hjelmstad’s post where veterans make burritos and distribute them to the homeless.
“I don’t know what those young guys want to do, but I let them tell me what they want to do and then we support that,” he said.
The team names, serving as an anthem as each one group moves closer to the other one on Highway 281, are appropriate, he said.
“It is legacy and vision. We’re both celebrating the history and making history with this ride,” Hjelmstad said.