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Former soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, along with their family and friends attended St. James Plantation Veterans Day memorial service Sunday afternoon.
The numbers were no surprise for a development that houses so many veterans, it established its own American Legion Post.
Post 543 was officially organized in September 2011. It had 17 members, the minimum required for a charter.
Rick Sessa, Post adjutant, said the new American Legion was expected to grow at a rate that it would reach 50 members by 2013.
Officials signed their 85th member on Wednesday, he added.
Chuck Akstin said the number of veterans in St. James and along N.C. 211 made growing easy.
But Sessa added at each monthly meeting, members were challenged to come with a veteran.
While many of Post 543’s members live right in the development, they also come from Southport and Bolivia.
Sessa said the membership of an American Legion depends on the demographics and amount of people in the surrounding area.
Calabash has an American Legion post with 600 members, Sessa said.
While Kure Beach’s Post has 25, Post commander Don McGuire added.
The Richard H. Stewart Jr. American Legion Post 543 is not named for one of its founder or any members. Stewart Jr. died in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Stewart’s mother, Joan, and father, Richard Stewart Sr., were instrumental in bringing the American Flag that flew over the North Tower to St. James for its July 4, 2011, parade.
“As we talked to the Stewarts, we learned their son was involved in (assistance) programs for Vietnam veterans while he was in school,” McGuire said. “We felt it was a perfect fit and told them we’d be honored if we could take his name for the Post.”
Organizers also wanted to name the American Legion Post 911, but Posts are assigned numbers in sequence, so St. James became the 543rd Post.
Post 543 members have served in every military conflict the U.S. has been involved in since World War II, Akstin said.
The Post takes care of its own, offering a Ramps and Rails program to build ramps and install railing for relocated veterans who need help getting in and around the house.
Now that Post 543 is established, the members are becoming active in several scholarship and youth programs.
They are working with JROTC and Civil Air cadets, the North Carolina Student trooper program and Boys and Girls State.
“There’s lots of things besides baseball,” Sessa said.
McGuire said they also host guest speakers including Anita Hatsell, Brunswick County’s Senior Veterans Officer, who has presented information on veteran benefits—presentations that are open to all veterans, not just Post members.
Post 543 began fundraising to provide scholarships and other benefit programs by hosting a Military Appreciation Day golf tournament and picnic Sept. 8.
The golf tournament attracted 400 players and 600 people attended the picnic, which included raffles and a live auction.
The event generated $38,000 in proceeds, which were split between the American Legion and Operation At Ease.
Post 543 works with the nonprofit organization to bring families of active duty military personnel, most from Fort Bragg, to St. James for an all-expenses paid weekend. The families stay in a condominium, enjoy free meals and receive a gas card to cover the cost of the drive.
“The whole thing is about helping veterans, active duty or recently returning (personnel) and kids,” McGuire said.
For the rest of 2012, Post 543 will participate in the Oak Island Christmas Parade and will host an oratory contest for South Brunswick High School students Dec. 5.
For more information on American Legion Post 543, email McGuire at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brian Slattery is a staff writer for The Brunswick Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or email@example.com.