"Write this down," the post commander announces. "I'm not saying another word to you until you have a shot of Jim Beam with me."
Dusk is settling on American Legion Post 134 on a Friday night. The dumpy Quonset hut sticks out like a middle finger on an almost comically gentrified stretch of Northeast Alberta Street between Salt & Straw and Pine State Biscuits. Inside the Legion, it smells like french fries, whiskey and weed. A guitar player glances up from under his Stetson while he sings Johnny Cash standards and his own compositions—most of them feature the word "lonely" in the chorus. The crowd, numbering about 30, is mostly men, mostly young, mostly with memories of Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It's a fucking dive, it's a shithole," Al Artero says to me. "But we're going to treat you like family here. We allow our veterans to synthesize a little bit. We think that's going to lead to some real good—and so far, it has."
Artero did three tours of duty, including "rolling into Iraqi neighborhoods while getting shot at" before he turned 22 years old. Now he's the lanky, bristle-bearded post commander in a place that, until this winter, most Portlanders without military service knew best as a bingo hall.
That changed last January, when the post turned itself into an emergency homeless shelter, giving cots to dozens of people during a bitter freeze. "We were the only homeless shelter in town with karaoke," recalls former post commander Sean Davis.
It was the public unveiling of a new-era American Legion, one that for several years had been establishing gender-neutral restrooms, LGBTQ trivia nights and social-justice slogans spoken by certified warriors. It was also a generational affront: The Vietnam vets at the state office didn't know what to do with the Iraq War kids opening their bar to the public and inviting homeless people to spend the night. The Oregon branch of the American Legion threatened to yank Post 134's charter—then quickly retreated in the face of bad headlines in the Los Angeles Times.
More importantly, Davis and Artero spotted something during the five nights of service: a purpose and camaraderie that reminded them of leading units in combat zones.
"These guys just started showing up," Davis recalls, "these guys who usually just stay home on disability playing PS4 and smoking pot. It was amazing to see them just turn on. We're completely wasting all the skills that they have."
Artero now sees a bigger role for the post in civic life. It could become an emergency response network, bringing in local activists to provide grassroots services for people in need. It could be a place where Portland values and military service find enough common ground to help others. "For 17 years," he says, "'support your troops' has been beat into the political consciousness of people. How do we own that? How do we say, 'Here's what our troops want to do'?"
The guitar player finishes his song. He raises a shot glass. "Here's to this place," he says.
Artero slaps his empty glass on the table, and shouts back: "It's always yours."
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