There has been a change of command at the Melvin Cowart American Legion Post #274 that serves the Fort Myers Beach community from San Carlos Island at 899 Buttonwood Drive. William “Joe” Bullock took the reins as the new Commander one month ago, with a mission to ensure the chapter remains strong and relevant in its future. The Post formed on April 16, 1951, in memory of Melvin Cowart, a local man who gave his life in defense of our nation. The American Legion post is a leader in veteran’s affairs and all phases of patriotism, plays a prominent role in Civil Defense, and cooperates with local groups for the common good.
The Post membership elected Joe and the rest of the leadership team to their one-year terms just after the Fourth of July, with the District Commander coming to Fort Myers Beach to swear them in. “My election was easy,” he relates with a hearty laugh: “I ran unopposed, with my fellow members electing me by acclamation, so we did not have to spend a lot of money mailing ballots all across the nation.” This is actually his second time serving as a Post Commander, having served in that capacity at his original Post in Berrien Springs, Michigan. “I belong to #274 now for 14 years, but joined the American Legion 46 years ago, immediately at the end of my military career.”
No Ordinary Joe!
Commander Joe served in the Army from 1968 to 1970, but unfortunately never overseas. “I was a Wheel & Track Mechanic, working out of the motor pools in Louisiana and Maryland before entering civilian life where I did construction for a career, building and remodeling homes. I am now in semi-retirement, though I still keep my hand in it a bit.” Although born “William Bullock,” the Commander has gone by his middle name, Joe, his entire life. “I had an older cousin William, who everyone knew as Bill, so to avoid confusion in the family, everyone called me ‘Joe’; there are people who have known me for decades who have no idea my real name is William!”
Unlike many of today’s veterans, he became a Legion Member immediately after his military service. “One of the primary reasons was because of my Dad, who was a World War II veteran, so I was kind-of forced into it,” he says laughing! “Because our country meant so much to him, we were one of those families who put the flag up every morning and took it down appropriately each night, and that is how we began and ended each school day as well. The American Legion is a great organization that does a lot of good for communities all over the nation.”
Commander Joe says the objective of his term is to “get more ‘Americanism’ out into the community than in the past, to promote a more patriotic attitude throughout our region. It is important for the commander of any local Post to practice and preach Americanism to our schools, as we have to get that out to our young people at as early of an age as possible, as this is missing in their lives and education. I had a recent visit from an area schoolteacher who was thrilled by this, to bring that concept into our schools.”
You Did Your Job
In becoming the Commander, Joe now leads the 7th largest American Legion Post in the State of Florida, with over 1,300 members, “and that is pretty impressive,” he relates. “Most of our members actually participate in two Posts in a reciprocal relationship: ours here and another up North where they spend the Summer. I am a good example of this, as Post #274 is actually my third, in addition to Berrien Springs as well as some time in Vevay, Indiana.”
Joining Commander Joe on the Post #274 leadership team for one-year terms are a 1st, 2nd, & 3rd Vice Adjutant, a service officer and historian, and four committee members. “As in any leadership role, being in charge of 1,300 people can be thankless,” he explains, “so you realize upfront you will never please everyone, so you just try as hard as you can to do the best possible job, as this is truly rewarding if you do it right. If, when you put your head on the pillow each night and get a good night’s sleep with a clear conscience, you know you did your job.”
While Post #274 is healthy, Joe calls the American Legion’s biggest national concern “that our membership continues to fall over the past few decades, as we search for ways to get younger veterans involved after their service. We do not have that many World War II vets, meaning that most of our members served in the Korea or Vietnam eras.” Joe thinks this membership plunge goes back to the legacy following the Vietnam War: “When you returned from the Second World War or Korea, Americans treated you like a conquering hero, but for those who came back after Vietnam, you were often ignored or treated with scorn, with no one ever appreciating your sacrifice.”
To stem this tide in Southwest Florida, Joe plans to “get out into the Fort Myers Beach community more than we ever have in the past, to spread the word about ‘Americanism’ and the role the Legion plays in our nation and local area, to get more veterans to join our ranks, and get our current members more active. I want to ensure that we get our voice out into the community, to positively influence our youth, help our fellow vets and increase our membership to benefit those who live here. It can be simple things, like providing a Color Guard for the funeral of a veteran, with salutes and firing the honor volley and the presentation of the flag, not only in memory of a friend and fellow vet, but for the comfort it provides to their family.”
He finds the most rewarding aspect of the American Legion to be “when you see a young veteran on the street and he needs your help and you can make those arrangements. Homeless vets are a big, big problem in our nation and we need to assist them to receive treatment, to bring them back into society. Despite recent headlines, we actually have excellent Veteran’s Administration (VA) medical facilities in our area, and we get vets into treatment, especially for mental and emotional issues, as many former military members don’t get the appropriate level of care or know how to take advantage of what is out there for them. A former Post activity was providing transportation for vets to the VA Hospital in Tampa, and I plan to resurrect that program.”
As for his management style, Joes believes that “kindness not only rules the day, but it produces more results than even money. I thank everyone for their work, whether it is someone who helps a fellow vet or those here who serve us at our bar and kitchen. It is amazing how a simple kind word or sincere gesture brings positive results long after, as treating people with dignity is sadly becoming a lost skill.”
Here For Our Community!
In addition to community service, American Legion Post #274 is about companionship and fellowship, offering meals each day, marching in every local parade, hosting fundraisers and providing entertainment. “We have performers this time of year usually on Fridays and Saturdays,” says Joe, “but in season we try to have someone every night. Right now, we only have about 50 active members in Town, so it can look awful empty in our great big hall, but when everyone returns for the winter, suddenly we pack the place!” The Post has a large meeting room for group functions as well as being available for rentals, with it proving especially popular for wedding receptions.
Some Post events are open to the public, including Bingo every Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday at Noon. Daily lunches and dinners are from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 7 p.m. respectively, with menus available online; non-members may purchase meals but only members can buy alcohol. The Post holds its membership meetings the first Monday of each month, with prospective members and other guests welcome, with the next session on August 7 at 8 p.m.
In addition to the Post membership, #274 is home to a Ladies Auxiliary that is open to those women who had a father, mother, brother, sister or husband in the military, as well as a Sons of the American Legion chapter, with each of these having over 400 members. For more information or to join American Legion Post #274, see www.post274.org, email at Legionpost274@aol.com, or call 239-463-6591.
“I love my life right now,” concluded Joe with quiet assurance. “I meet a lot of good people, and help make their lives better, without a lot of negative influence, and I am confident I will still feel that way a year from now at the end of my term. There are so many worthy vets who just need a little bit of help, to bring out the best in their lives. You won’t regret your service to the American Legion, as we are here for our community!”