As commander of American Legion Post 168 in Cannon Beach, Dan O’Reilly is happy to be in a place where he can give back to the town he loves with an organization that serves as a beacon to fellow veterans.
“I can’t imagine doing this in a big city where everything is so impersonal,” said O’Reilly, who has lived in Cannon Beach since 2000. “Here, you get to give back to the community every day. You’d have to drag me away from here.”
Established in 1948, American Legion Post 168 is a community center that strives to give back to past, present, and future generations.
O’Reilly served in the U.S. Navy from 1959 to 1990. His years of service took him around the world on a variety of ships to a variety of ports.
He chuckles at what people picture when they think of an American Legion: a room full of cigarette smoke with people tossing back drinks while swapping war stories.
“It’s so much more than a social club,” he said. “It’s our community, founded on service, and we have a duty to give back.”
With 222 members, the Cannon Beach American Legion is heavily involved in local events and charities.
Those include annual food and toy drives during the holiday season, a Red Cross blood drive and a scholarship program for local students.
The legion also hosts Casino Game Night, a fundraiser for the Cannon Beach Preschool and Children’s Center.
“Our many wonderful volunteers are committed to this community in a big way,” O’Reilly said.
Memorial Day, however, is a special time for Post 168. It is the day the members share with Cannon Beach the heartache of brothers and sisters lost.
“Memorial Day is quite a thing for us,” O’Reilly said.
The post invites Cannon Beach to observe Memorial Day during a ceremony at Fir Creek Bridge, which crosses Ecola Creek on the north side of town. This year, the ceremony will begin at 11 a.m.
During the annual ceremony, a Color Guard with flags from each service branch, plays homage to veterans past and present with the playing of taps and presentation of flowers.
There are also short speeches and an invocation.
“The post is in full dress, and flags around town are at half-mast,” O’Reilly said. “Everyone is welcome to watch.”
Post 168 also participates in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Manzanita cemetery.
The wreaths, handmade from poppies by the American Legion Auxiliary, are laid on veteran’s graves.
Each grave is marked with flags placed there by the Boys Scouts of America.
“The ceremony in Manzanita is very moving,” O’Reilly said. “You see graves from Civil War veterans and realize we are still remembering their service.”
One incident from the Manzanita ceremony in 2012 sticks with O’Reilly.
O’Reilly’s son, a Navy veteran, and his grandson, a Boy Scout, were observing a family tending the grave of a fallen family member.
Father and son approached the family and asked if they could present a wreath.
“After placing the wreath, my son gave a crisp Navy salute, and my grandson followed with a Boy Scout salute,” O’Reilly said. “The family was very grateful. If your eyes were dry, you weren’t paying attention.”
Keeping stories alive
Elaine Murdy, executive director at the Cannon Beach History Center and Museum for the past three years, sees Memorial Day as a time to keep veterans’ stories alive.
Murdy, who served two years in the U.S. Army, found her service established a connection with her father, a U.S. Army Green Beret who served in Vietnam.
“Dad never used to talk about his experiences in Vietnam,” Murdy said.
Murdy’s father now regularly gives lectures about his service in Portland and at local schools, like Broadway Middle School.
“Looking back, I like to think my enlisting spurred him to talk about it more,” Murdy said. “It was my gesture to him.”
Murdy served at Fort Sill in Oklahoma before receiving a medical discharge for a stress fracture received during a training exercise.
Though she originally enlisted with the goal of paying for college, she found herself drawn to life in the Army.
“I thought about making it a career,” Murdy said. “I feel like it’s a piece of my life that was unfinished, and I have a hard time with that.”
Though people occasionally approach Murdy and thank her for her service, it always puzzles her.
“I didn’t do anything,” she said. “I enlisted for the purely selfish reason of needing money for college.”
Murdy prefers that people remember those whose lives have been irrevocably altered by war.
“I have a friend who has done multiple tours in Iraq, and he is not the person he was when I met him,” she said. “War splits people and countries.”
Murdy is glad that her current position allows her the opportunity to tell stories for people who perhaps are no longer able.
Among the items in the history center’s collection is the Navy uniform worn by longtime Cannon Beach resident Jay Schwer.
Schwer, who, for many years, inaugurated the Christmas season with a lamp lighting ceremony downtown, served in the Pacific during World War II.
“Jay is such an iconic Cannon Beach figure,” Murdy said. “This is a part of his life not many people know about.”
Murdy also invites guest speakers to the history center who talk about the pain of war, though she hopes more people take notice.
“We had a recent guest lecturer who gave a talk called ‘Life After War,’” she said. “Only three people showed up: my dad, a woman whose son was in Afghanistan and a woman whose husband served in World War II. It was sad more people didn’t come, and the speaker said, ‘The people who need to be here aren’t.’”
True meaning of Memorial Day
O’Reilly and Murdy both agree that most Cannon Beach veterans don’t talk openly about their experiences, preferring to concentrate on putting their actions towards the good of the community.
Both also hope that the most important aspect of Memorial Day – remembrance – is not lost on the casual observer.
“There are names behind the death toll numbers you see scrolling along the bottom of the TV screen,” Murdy said. “It doesn’t matter if you are for or against war. Lives are changed.”
O’Reilly is hopeful that, at least for one day, heated political discussions will be put on the back burner.
“People should reflect on what keeps our country secure and the sacrifices that have been made,” O’Reilly said. “There is no better place for that than here.”
This story originally appeared in Cannon Beach Gazette.