WAYNE, NJ – Monday September 16, 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of The American Legion.  On this date in 1919, the United States Congress gave the group of war weary soldiers from World War I an official charter as a patriotic veterans organization. Over the course of the next ten decades, The American Legion became one of the most influential voices for veteran rights in the nation.  According to their website, “Today, membership stands at nearly 2 million in more than 13,000 posts worldwide. The posts are organized into 55 departments: one each for the 50 states, along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, France, Mexico and the Philippines.”

Nationally, The American Legion’s efforts resulted in the establishment of the Veteran’s Bureau in 1921; this eventually became the Veteran’s Administration and because of the Legion’s lobbying, in 1989, the V.A. was elevated to Cabinet-level status as the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The list of national accomplishments by the organization is too long for this article, but from the GI Bill, which is considered their single greatest legislative achievement to the myriad of children’s and veteran’s charities they support, the American Legion has influenced the American way of life for the better.

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One of the most powerful forces for good in our town

The national American Legion organization draws its power from each local post across the country and in Wayne, New Jersey on Legion Way, off the corner of Route 202 and Parish Drive, Post 174 sits quietly near Route 23. Within is one of the most powerful forces for good in our town.

John Swank, navy veteran, Commander of the Passaic County American Legion and Vice Commander/former Commander of Wayne’s Post 174 is a tall, strongly built man with many tattoos, a long beard and a serious countenance that some might find intimidating or imposing, until you see his smile and hear the passion with which he talks of the good that Post 174 has done. “I am so proud of all of our accomplishments. It’s not me, it’s not the leadership, it’s the family that is our entire post that comes together to always do so much to help so many.”

Swank’s friend and ‘right-hand-man’ Bill Rucci, the financial officer for Post 174, and Army vet who served in the Persian Gulf War talked of the main reason why Post 174 is here: “We’re here for the local veterans.  Helping them with to keep up with their benefits from the V.A. and supporting them in any way we can. But, I think, the most important part of this post is about the camaraderie. A lot of these guys are alone, widowers, and this is their family. We provide a social structure for them.”

“I’ve been taking part in community events at Wayne’s Post 174 for years,” said Passaic County Board of Chosen Freeholders Director and Wayne resident, John Bartlett. “Veterans share a remarkable bond and seeing the Legionnaires’ service and compassion for fellow veterans is truly heartwarming.”

Yet, Post 174’s outreach goes far beyond helping other veterans.

“We are blessed to have American Legion Post 174 located in Wayne,” said Wayne Mayor Chris Vergano. “Our post has a long and vibrant history of not only assisting veterans but of also helping members of the community in time of need.”  

To commemorate the 100th anniversary and commend all the good works that Post 174 has done for Wayne, the Mayor and the entire Wayne Township Council plan to read a proclamation in praise of Post 174 at this week’s council meeting. 

“I think in the beginning, the town and the county looked at us as just bikers,” said Swank. But I prefer the term ‘motorcycle enthusiasts.’ We may look scary, but we’re veterans, and families of veterans and we have a motto: Veterans Still Serving.”

Community, State, Nation

In the Preamble to the Constitution of The American Legion, its stated that the members associate themselves together for several purposes beyond serving veterans: ‘To inculcate a sense of individual obligation to the community, state and nation,’ is one. Another is: ‘To promote peace and good will on Earth.”

Post 174 is clearly fulfilling these promises.

On a national level, supporting and raising money for COTA, the Children’s Organ Transplant Association is a big program within the American Legion Organization but also important for local Post 174.  “In the past couple of years, the New Jersey posts have placed first in raising funds for COTA,” said Swank. “We developed a friendly competition with Ocean County. Last year, Post 174 alone donated $15,000, the rest of the Passaic County posts donated another $5,000 and our sons of the American Legion donated another $5,000.  Ocean County raised $22,500.  Rucci added: “It’s a friendly competition, but everybody wins.”

In November of each year, 174 has a three-day music event to collect toys for the Marine Corps Toys for Tots program.  This year the event will take place November 15, 16 and 17. “We have an amazing line-up of local bands, great food and fun and the only cost of entry is to donate a toy,” said Swank. Each year, they deliver ‘truck loads’ of toys to the Boonton train station where they are picked up by the Marine Corps Toys for Tots train.

Locally and somewhat quietly, Post 174 has become one of the most powerful forces for good in our town. “We raise money for Autism, for Cancer; almost every weekend we have an event here.”  174 is almost always in fundraising mode.  “We always keep service to our veterans and our community foremost in our minds.”

One of the largest beneficiaries of Post 174’s good will has been Jayden’s Journey. In 2004, when Jayden John Singer was three years old, he was stricken with bacterial meningitis and life became very expensive and very complex for Jayden and his family.  Jayden’s father was a Passaic County Sheriff’s officer who had to give up his job to take care of his son.

“We took over the organization of the Jayden’s Journey motorcycle run about six years ago and in that time, we’ve raised over $100,000 for Jayden’s family,” said Swank.

“Of course, we’re proud of the big things we raise money for,” said Rucci, “but on a monthly basis we’re writing smaller checks for different families in need, different places. Maybe a $500 check here, a $200 check here. There’s a lot of other, smaller needs that are taken care of.” Swank added: “Somebody had a house fire and we donated $1,000 to help them. Just recently, a veteran became homeless, we put him up in a hotel for a week to help him get back on his feet.”

Each year for Thanksgiving and Christmas, Post 174 gathers and donates full holiday meals with all the trimmings to local families.  We bring them to those who are hungry, struggling or are just down on their luck temporarily,” said Ricci.

“We also donate these holiday meals to the food pantry at the Church of the Nazarene where Pastor Chuck distributes them to his parishoners who need some help or holiday cheer,” added Swank.

The current Commander of Post 174 Joe Fricker, a navy veteran who served on submarines as an internal communication engineer and manages the operations of Post 174 talked about how they help support other Posts throughout the country in time of crisis. “When hurricane Harvey hit Houston, and they had all that flooding down there, we worked with the Hightstown American Legion post and, together, we raised enough goods to fill a tractor trailer. We had it driven down to a Legion post in Texas, for them to distribute to the families down there.”

Passaic County Honors Post 174

At the September 10th Passaic County Board of Chosen Freeholders meeting, Deputy Director Sandi Lazarra read a proclamation signed by all of the Freeholders recognizing the accomplishments of the American Legion as a national organization and Post 174 specifically: “We first met with the leadership of Post 174 through our combined efforts to bring the Vietnam Moving Wall here to Passaic County,” said Lazarra. “I am so thankful for the friendship that we formed during this time.”

In May of this year, Post 174 worked with the Freeholders to bring the “Moving Wall” to Garrett Mountain.  The Moving Wall is a replica of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington DC designed to travel to different areas throughout the US. According to the Moving Wall website: “Bringing the Wall home to communities throughout our country allows the souls enshrined on the Memorial to exist once more among family and friends in the peace and comfort of familiar surroundings. The traveling exhibit provides thousands of veterans who have been unable to cope with the prospect of facing The Wall to find the strength and courage to do so within their own communities, thus allowing the healing process to begin.”

Lazarra felt it was important to recognize the post beyond their support for fellow veterans. “I also want people to know that they do a great deal of community service.  For the last several years they’ve sponsored a Motorcycle Run, along with the Passaic County's PBA 197 and 286, called Jayden's Journey.  It's to raise money for Jayden's family to help with medical bills.  Jayden was afflicted with bacterial meningitis when he was three years old.”

“The American Legion also sponsors Toys for Tots, supports the Children's Organ Transplant Association and holds multiple fundraisers to assist veterans and their families,” continued Lazarra.

At the Freeholder meeting, County Commander John Swank returned the honor to Passaic County, to the board of Freeholders who helped to bring the Moving Wall to Garrett mountain, but also to the Passaic County Parks Department. “The presentation that the County Parks Department made was the most amazing and outstanding that I’ve ever seen,” said Swank.

Nodding, Rucci added: “They deserve so much credit. Anything we needed; they gave it to us." The Passaic County Parks Department donated their time and materials to make the area around the Moving Wall outstanding, but the cost to to bring the Moving Wall to Passaic County was carried by Post 174 itself. 

Not everything that Post 174 has done to help Wayne, Passaic County, the State of New Jersey and the United States of America is listed in this article.  The list is just too long. 

It is our veterans throughout the history of the United States, from the American Revolution to today’s conflicts around the world, who are responsible for the freedoms all Americans enjoy today. So, when you see those ‘scary’ bikers around town, look for their Post 174 American Legion, American Legion Riders or Sons of America Legion patches on their coats, or tattoos on their arms and take a moment to thank them for being a force for good and for all that they do to make Wayne a better place for those who are less fortunate.

To support Post 174's goodwill efforts, visit their website for upcoming events or to contact them for donations: