The New Face of the American Legion Born on USF Campus

Captain Michael Gerold carries three iPhones. Which is not that hard to do while wearing the uniform of a U.S. Army officer. He says he needs them all: one for personal, one for army duties and one for the crowning achievement of his life thus far—Legion Post 9-11, founded right here at the University of San Francisco.

The new face of the American Legion, as Gerold calls it, is a long overdue revamp of the U.S. armed services social clubs which have appeared to age with the WWII veterans who frequent them, and whose waffle nights and bingo games fail to attract the interest of today’s young veterans.

Post 9-11 is the first and only American Legion post founded specifically for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It attracts members with social activities like paintball, skydiving and scuba diving, and while the Post tries hard to be hip and exciting with adrenaline-pumping outings, its main objective is to help young veterans adapt to life back home.

The Post offers its members vocational and educational advocacy, and medical services. Gerold says he would like to see every one of his veterans pursue some form of higher education. “If they have a bachelor’s, we want them to go for a master’s. We want every one of our vets to have a career, not a job. Job spells just-over-broke, our veterans deserve better,” he said.

Post 9-11 has gained significant momentum since its founding one year ago. CNN recently aired a piece calling it “The most influential legion post in 7 countries.” Both Barack Obama and John McCain have worn its blue “We Do For The Troops” wrist bands. It has been studied and emulated by the American Legion at the national level, and its membership has swelled to nearly 500.

Post 9-11’s success is impressive, but what’s even more interesting is how it was started, by one wounded soldier who found himself teaching Army ROTC classes here at USF.

At the age of 27, Gerold was a successful real estate investor, co-managing a multimillion-dollar portfolio with his brother. He had made good on his marketing degree from USF. But he was not satisfied and decide to join the Army. After suffering a broken back in a parachuting accident, Gerold was on his way to a comfortable medical retirement from the military.

Then 9-11 happened, and Gerold felt compelled to fight. He appealed his pending medical retirement, it was granted, and soon he found himself on the ground in Afghanistan as a special operations officer. One day in May, while on patrol as part of a U.N. Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, his convoy of armored vehicles came under heavy attack. Gerold’s vehicle was hit, blowing him out of the commander’s turret. He sustained heavy injuries and was evacuated by his troops and later medivacked to Germany where he spent three months in the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center before coming home to the U.S. to spend an additional two months in a military hospital at Fort Bragg. Gerold suffered severe spinal core trauma and had a “ripped up arm.”

He was able to return to his home in San Francisco where he underwent additional surgery for the spinal core trauma. While he recovered, the Army placed Gerold at USF as an assistant professor of military science within the ROTC program.

In San Francisco, Gerold was in touch with lots of Iraq and Afghan war veterans, many of whom were having trouble getting acclimated to civilian life. Gerold took these veterans in, opening his home, and “basically giving them three meals a day and a place to sleep,” he recalls. From his SOMA apartment, it was easy for veterans to go to job interviews in the Financial District and access health care services.

In reaching out to young veterans, Gerold realized that there was a void in the existing services they were being offered. “The public says ‘we support the troops,’ sending care packages, but that doesn’t translate to support back home,” he said.

Gerold decided to found his own legion post, and started appealing to contacts across the Bay Area for support. He sent a letter to dozens of California colleges, asking for their help in educating veterans. “USF was the first to respond to our call,” he said. “They were welcoming and ready to help from day one.”

Upon meeting Mike Duffy, Dean of USF’s School of Business and Management, Gerold told him, “I’m going to revolutionize the American Legion, and I’m probably going to need your help.” Duffy did help, using his extensive network of business professionals to find volunteers who were willing to help veterans with career counseling and resume building, and help the post with business plan development, accounting and legal services. Duffy said, “I was struck by how consistent their goals were with the goals of the University.”

USF alumni and San Francisco lawyers Dick Wall and John Granucci also chipped in, helping establish the post as a non-profit corporation. Granucci remembers being instantly sold on the proposal, “I was really impressed by [Gerold] as an individual and with what his plans were. It’s hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm.” Gerold estimates that the post has received nearly $20,000 worth of pro bono legal services thus far. “They are huge,” he said of Wall and Granucci.

Post 9-11 is staffed by volunteers, many of them current USF ROTC students, some of whom donate nearly 40 hours per week, says Andrew Chung, the post’s Adjutant and Operations Officer, who is also a junior at USF. Chung handles logistics and public relations for the post. One of his responsibilities is to schedule rides for veterans to get them to medical appointments and job interviews. The Post has three shiny new vans that it uses to transport veterans free of charge. They are often driven by volunteer USF ROTC students.

Legion Post 9-11 has deep connections to the USF community. Susan Prion, USF Professor of Nursing, serves as the post’s surgeon general, directing medical support and services for veterans. The post has received significant financial support from Claudio Chiuchiarelli, USF Chairman of the Board, who spoke at the Post’s gala, and from members of San Francisco’s elite Olympic Club. “That place is filled with USF alumni who have helped out,” said Gerold.

Gerold praises the USF community for their support. “We really have the same mission in that we are trying to educate minds and hearts to change the world. Post 9-11 is educating hearts and minds to change the world’s perception, treatment and understanding of who we are and why we volunteer for military service.”