Ralph Gracie Post: Mother, son to lead Legion, Auxiliary
Bemidji's Ralph Gracie American Legion Post made history this year in a variety of ways.
At 30, Commander Gabe Wakanabo is the youngest veteran to lead the Legion; he is also the first enrolled member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe to serve as commander. In addition, when Stella Wakanabo was elected Legion Auxiliaty president, they are the first mother and son to take the top officers' positions.
"There's been husband and wife, but never mother and son," Stella said. "I've been a member of the Auxiliary for many years, but I wasn't active. I decided after my boys got in (the Marines), I'd find out what the American Legion really involves."
Gabe served two tours of duty in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 and was severely wounded when he was blown up by an improvised bomb explosion. Gabe's brother, U.S. Marines Special Operations Gunnery Sergeant Earl Wakanabo has served seven deployments in Iraq.
"Every year since 2003 you've had one of your boys there," Gabe said to his mother.
Gabe was asked to speak about his war experiences at the 2005 Legion Veterans Day Dinner and signed up as a member that night. He said he expects an age shift among Legion members as veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan return home. Currently Ralph Gracie Post members represent veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Stella said some veterans don't know the benefits the Legion provides. Legion lobbyist work for veteran rights in Washington, D.C.; they can obtain free hearing aids, walkers and wheelchairs as needed; they can ask for help trouble shooting disability claims. And the Auxiliary provides scholarships for college. The Legion also a refuge and a retreat where veterans can feel at home, she said. She encouraged anyone with military connections to join.
"There's a lot of healing that takes place here," Stella said. "Veterans talk about their experiences."
Gabe said as a Leech Lake Band member, he has "almost two lifestyles."
He can speak some Ojibwe and is a traditional powwow dancer who wears regalia handed down from his great uncle. He said he offers sage and tobacco and prior to battle, thanks the enemy for coming out to contest him "because it's someone else's life, another warrior."
He and his brother receive blessings from elders before the leave for their deployments, and they have Ojibwe names. Gabe's is Bezhiggowashin, which means "One Who Flies Alone."
"It's odd that when I was a baby, that name fit me," Gabe said, noting he felt quite alone for some time after returning from Iraq.
One of the duties Gabe said he has taken on readily since joining the Legion is as a color guard member for special occasions and funerals.
"That, for me, is one thing I feel obligated to," he said. "I'd want someone to do the same for me when I pass away."