Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 27, 2013

League offers home for every veteran

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Robert Herzberg thought it unfair that some veterans didn't have a place in military organizations because of certain stipulations, such as cut-off dates and requirements that they must have served overseas.

An idea grew, sparked by casual conversations with other veterans: Why not start his own military league?

That was around 1980.

Herzberg, 81, with the help of volunteers led an effort to create a meeting place where all veterans are welcome. The American Military League formed with just about a dozen members in 1981.

"I felt the need for Korean war and Vietnam war veterans to have the availability ... the veterans had no place," said Herzberg, who toiled aboard the USS Midway with the Navy. "This is an opening for any veteran who served honorably in the military in the U.S. or a foreign country."

Six hundred men and women scattered across northern lower Michigan have a home at the AML off Sybrant Road, a former car detail garage. The building -- complete with a kitchen, bar and large meeting room -- is an upgrade from the league's "primitive" roots in a shed at the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station.

"You should’ve seen some of the first places that we had," said Chuck Merriner, an original member and Korean War Air Force veteran. "There was a lot of leg work, a lot of paper work, a lot of waiting. But there was a lot of people who contributed to that leg work."

Herzberg's wife, Helen, in 1982 formed the Ladies Auxiliary, a group open to women of a relative in the military service. The AML now has a friends group open to anyone.

The league's values are near and dear to commander Frank Dallavalle's heart. He sought membership from the VFW after 25 years with the Coast Guard and was denied active membership because he didn't serve overseas. The VFW has since loosened its membership requirements, he said.

"This is team. This is every branch," he said of the AML. "You'll hear the Navy pick on the Coast Guard and the Coast Guard pick on the Army. It's great."

Volunteers are the organization's soul. They help at local shelters, prepare packages for soldiers, meet for fish fry dinners and gather at annual picnics. The AML will be in this year's National Cherry Festival parade.

Members John Hakala, Bill Marsh and Clint Marsh meet at the league two days a week for lunch. They enjoy the food selection and the beer. Plus, there's no "grumpy old men."

"Of the military clubs in town, I prefer this one," Clint Marsh said. "Everybody's friendly."

Herzberg said he hasn't seen an altercation in AML's three decades.

"It’s like going to family reunion. You might have a quarrel, but they never go far," he said.