For veterans, American Legion more than just bingo

Posted April 21, 2022

Situated on North Main Street in River Falls, a sign advertising bingo on Friday nights stands out in fluorescent red. Behind it is a building that has stood since the 1950s. It is American Legion Post 121.

Greeting any visitor of the nonprofit organization of former service members is a bar. Shiny and pristine, faces reflect from its surface. One face is the post commander’s, Melissa “Missy” Hildebrandt.

Hildebrandt joined the American Legion over a decade ago on a request from a brigadier general.

“He was the type of guy you just couldn’t say no to,” she said in an interview. He was the reason for ever attending her first Legion meeting. “I was involved from the minute I stepped into the door.”

Post 121 has over 570 members, according to Hildebrandt. “It’s like having a whole other family here.”

Members range from different ages and periods; the only requirement is the individual must be a veteran of the United States military.

One such veteran is Bill Gnatzig, who has been a member of the post for over 35 years.

Drafted by the Marine Corps in 1969, Gnatzig completed his service in 1971. A writer and journalist during his working career, he worked for the Marine Corps Leatherneck magazine at a time. He is now the public affairs officer for Post 121.

In an interview, Gnatzig expressed his sentiment towards the Legion saying, “it’s a way in continuing to serve.”

Continuing to serve is a common theme for many of the Legion’s members, and it is one echoed by Hildebrandt.

“Deep down the Legion to me is about still serving,” she said. “It’s making connections with not only veterans, but also the community.”

She explained the work Post 121 engages with the River Falls community.

“I’ll start with the things you see all the time. We have bingo,” she said. Post 121’s bingo Fridays were started by the same brigadier general who introduced Hildebrandt to the Legion.

“It was his baby,” she said. “It started off slow, but amazingly has grown into a pretty big thing. The neat thing about it is kids can come in and play.”

The reception hall, where bingo is hosted, is decorated with military memorabilia and photos, highlighting members of Post 121 and their achievements.

Along with bingo nights, Post 121 also participates in community chicken fries, sponsors Legion baseball for high school juniors and seniors, visits all local River Falls schools on Veterans Day and sponsored three blood drives, according to its 2021 newsletter.

The blood drives are a specific passion for another of Post 121’s members, Pat Singel. A Vietnam veteran, Singel “loves the blood drives” and enjoys the community work that goes into it.

This past September, Singel also worked with another nonprofit organization, Team Rubicon, in the aid of Afghanistan refugees at Fort McCoy in central Wisconsin. There he aided refugees in writing résumés and applying for college scholarships.

Singel emphasized his experience with Team Rubicon and the American Legion as a great way to serve local and international communities.

The post commander stressed the Legion’s importance in the local community.

“I want our (community) kids to see our veterans,” she said. “All of our funds we raise are going back to the community in one way or another.”