Last month Jim Mertens was named the American Legion Post 38 Legionnaire of the Year.
“It was an honor to present this award of recognition to Jim Mertens. I can think of no one more deserving than Jim,” said Pat Schmidt, current Post 38 Commander.
Schmidt added, “Jim spends more of his time devoted to Post 38 activities and projects than anyone. If there was a 'Legionnaire of the Decade' award, he'd be the one to get it.”
Mertens, then still living on the family farm near Redwood Falls, joined the National Guard on Christmas Eve, 1965.
“There was a waiting list to get into the guards. They called me that morning and said, ‘We’ve got an opening, but if you want it you have to get here by noon.”
Mertens’ reasons for joining the National Guard were straightforward.
“I was 18 and going to get called up anyway,” he said. “A lot of my buddies were already in the Guard.”
In early 1966 Mertens was sent to basic training in Missouri, then to California for advanced training to become an anti-tank gunner with the 105mm recoilless rifle.
“It was Jeep-mounted, and fired a shell about this long,” Mertens said, holding his hands about a yard apart.
“When the rifle would fire, it would really clean your sinuses,” Mertens laughed. “I’ve got a feeling it’s why I can’t hear real good now. It had a real back blast, too. If you were standing 50 or 75 feet behind it, you’d be in rough shape.
“The Vietnamese war was going pretty hot when we were done with basic in California. They had set up a Vietnamese village there to show us where the enemy would hide.”
For the rest of the war, however, Mertens continued farming here in Minnesota, and training two weekends a month at the Redwood Falls Armory.
“They had an infantry company here then,” he said.
In the early 1970s, Mertens was promoted to platoon sargeant and trained in the use of the 81mm mortar and wire-guided missiles.
By the mid-1980s Mertens was promoted to company first sargeant. He was working in a machine shop in Olivia at the time.
It was also around that time Mertens considered joining the American Legion.
“They were doing a lot of good service for the veterans in the community, and I wanted to support a group that supported veterans,” he said.
Support may be understating it — Mertens eventually served an unprecedented 14 years as Post 38 Legion Commander.
When Mertens first joined, the Legion was based in the second story above the old Wilson’s clothing store downtown. The current facility was built several years after he joined.
Page 2 of 2 - “When I joined it was mostly World War II and Korean War veterans,” he said. “Not many from the Vietnam era joined, and it’s still that way to this day. We have been picking up a few more from Vietnam, and from Desert Storm.”
Mertens has worked for the city of Redwood Falls for the past 22 years, now as the buildings and grounds superintendent.
“I retired from the Army Reserves in 1996,” he said. “I was in the service for 30 years.”
Today Mertens is district 2 vice-commander, assistant manager for gambling, and “is pretty much in charge of the kitchen,” he said.
He was also chair of the state American Legion Convention held in Redwood Falls last summer.
Mertens’ wife Jeannette is involved also, as president of the local auxiliary, and as 2nd district vice-president of the Legion Auxiliary.
Mertens acknowledged he’s concerned about the Legion’s future.
“When they first formed the American Legion in 1919, there wasn’t much else for people to do. Between the Legion and the VFW, almost everyone who was a veteran joined one for the companionship,” he said.
“With families today, there’s too much going on. Veterans are too busy to join these organizations, and it’s hard to stay involved.
“The honor guard is a volunteer deal, and sometimes it’s hard to round up enough people. We’re always looking for more.
“This is a great organization where you can meet some really wonderful people.”