It’s a documentary aimed at recruiting new members to The American Legion. It’s also a gift to the people of Arizona, commemorating the state’s involvement in World War I and in the formation of the Legion. And it’s the first part of a long-term series documenting America’s wartime involvement, from 1918 up through the present day.
It is “Arizona Heroes of World War I,” an hourlong documentary designed to be viewed in 15 chapters, created by members of the Legion Family in Arizona. And its success has the filmmakers and Department of Arizona officials eager to jump into the next phase.
“I think when it’s all said and done, we are going to recognize everybody that’s gone off to war or served this country during those eras,” said Department Commander Steve Aguirre.
Thousands have seen at least part of the documentary, either through Facebook shares or at screenings around the state.
The documentary’s origins stem from a challenge posed to Aguirre, then the department membership chairman, to look for ideas to expand the branding of The American Legion.
“I approached a couple of my post members, and I knew that they were filmmakers; as a matter of fact, they did a World War II movie for the Department of Defense. I actually saw the video, I was given a copy of it, and I thought this was a wonderful picture. But seeing now that everyone seems to have a cell phone, everybody has a mobile app, I thought that might be a good idea to approach it from that angle, that way anybody and everybody could see whatever it is that we come up with. And of course, the idea of World War I certainly came to fruition because we were approaching the centennial,” Aguirre said.
The filmmakers, Legionnaire Will Williams and Sons member Thomas Perry, have credits including “Frank Capra’s The War Years” and “Hollywood Goes to War.” Perry said the challenge of Aguirre’s request was where to start.
“I came in (to the Arizona History Museum in Tucson) … because the challenge for me was the Legion’s involvement with Arizona and World War I. We knew there were a number of posts commemorating killed-in-action World War I veterans, so we had a natural Legion connection from there, and then we started the research,” Perry said. “Well, when I came here to the museum, one of the docents came up and said, ‘Well, I heard you’re looking for Arizona history of war,’ she said, ‘Here’s an old book.’ And it had 20 pages dedicated to Arizona’s participation in World War I. And that created the groundwork to jump off of there.”
One of the founding members of the Legion, John Greenway, is memorialized with a statue in front of the museum.
“John Greenway went on to be one of three writers to write the preamble to the constitution of The American Legion. … So Arizona had a very, very strong connection to the birth of The American Legion. And to accent Arizona on the 100th anniversary of The American Legion was a natural progression,” Perry said.
While Aguirre wanted the documentary to emphasize the Legion’s history, “I was also looking for something that, if you, a veteran, saw this film and had questions about The American Legion, like why did I join The American Legion, why do others join The American Legion, (you would find answers),” he said. “So I thought, this is going to be a good step forward, not only to recognize the veterans who served, but also it is the beginnings of The American Legion and how we started it, and where it is today.”
The documentary’s chapters include a look at the 1st Arizona Infantry’s encounters with Pancho Villa before World War I, the USS Arizona and the state’s recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross. There are also separate chapters on native American and Mexican American soldiers, as well as the women who participated in the war effort.
“It was aimed to be shown in three- and four-minute segments to take advantage of the modern world of one, people not paying attention to things very much, and two, social media. We have had great success introducing the film and the Legion message utilizing Facebook as a platform,” Perry said. “Next year, after we are finished up with the marketing of the film the way it is, we will start readapting the pieces for Instagram. It gives us literally hundreds of thousands of people in the state of Arizona to reach out to, and it reaches out to our newest vets that are coming back from the Middle East. And that’s going to be the Legionnaires of the future.”
To Perry, using the documentary and its follow-ups to recruit newcomers to the Legion Family, by highlighting the Legion’s community impact, is the film’s “chief purpose.”
“If the community does not know that The American Legion exists, a veteran comes home to a community that’s not supporting the Legion and is not encouraging the veteran to be a part of the Legion, and we need the community to understand who the Legion was and why they should pay attention. So it’s an expansion not just to our own membership to honor and remember, to the veteran who gets out and wants to join, it’s also for our community,” Perry said.
“The thing I found was, the Legion does hundreds of things to support their local communities. And yet, no one knew that. Now, if I’m a vet and I’m coming out of service and I know that the Legion is someone who helps my community, and somebody approaches me and says, ‘Become a member of The American Legion and help us support your community,’ that’s a lot more incentive. So to reintroduce the public to The American Legion, is use the history of our heroes and our veterans to remind them of how important the Legion is, not only to them but to their communities.”
In addition to its use as a recruiting tool, the documentary is being given to schools and museums throughout Arizona.
“That’s a direct result of the Legion’s commitment to not only honoring and remembering our heroes and veterans, but also as a gift to the people of Arizona from the Legion on the Legion’s 100th birthday. We felt that the film was a really good way to give back to our state as well as to remember the contributions of our veterans,” Perry said.
“We still don’t know how it’s going to improve our membership. All we knew was we needed to tell the story, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to do so,” Aguirre said.