Bob Santo is a Huntington local and an American Legion force to be reckoned with.
Santo served from 1966 to 1970 in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. When he returned from serving, Santo was immersed in the life of a student—finishing his B.A. in psychology at C.W. Post—a husband, a father, and a young working man. He went into retail and wholesale apparel in New York City. He commuted to and from the city for the next 35 years until he retired.
Though Santo was a member at large with the American Legion, it wasn’t until 2005 that he got involved with Post 1244. “I received a little letter from the commander of the American Legion post in Greenlawn,” Santo said. “His name was George Henry, a WWII veteran, and he asked me to join the post.” When Santo went to check out a meeting, only six or seven other veterans were in attendance. All the same, Santo felt a familiar spark. “I felt like I spent the evening with my dad’s best friends,” he said.
The post’s numbers were dwindling, and Santo knew that if things didn’t change, Post 1244 could be on its way out. Santo stepped up to become the post’s commander, and worked with a handful of other local veterans over the next ten years to revitalize the post and grow membership.
“They didn’t have any idea about email,” Santo said of the earlier members, “so we introduced email and a website. When social media came around we used that. Plus, we tapped into our Vietnam-era veterans. We all had a network of people that we knew, and we began to bring folks in.” Post 1244 went from having 83 members on the rolls in 2005 to nearly 250. Out of the 46 posts in Suffolk County, Greenlawn is now the fourth largest. “It’s been a labor of love,” said Santo.
A challenge of the Greenlawn post, though, is that it hasn’t had a permanent home. “Right now, we rent a little space hourly from the Knights of Columbus,” Santo said. “They’ve been really nice to us. But it’s tough when you’ve got people, especially younger people, who are going to school, and have family stuff and kids— sometimes it’s impossible to get involved.” Santo said he’d love to see the post able to have weekend activities, which would allow for more flexibility and access. That dream is closer to reality than ever before.
In 2013, the Town of Huntington took over the 69th Infantry Armory in Huntington Station, on 5th Street. Santo was still serving at Post 1244’s commander, and saw an opportunity. “I immediately got on the phone for an appointment with Mr. Petrone, the town supervisor. I said, ‘I have a suggestion’.” He asked that the town provide Post 1244 with space, a community center where veterans could gather. The town agreed, and Post 1244 is set to move in when the building is ready.
Post 1244, under the command of Dennis Madden since 2015, now faces the challenge of bringing in the next generation. “Because we don’t have a bar or any of that stuff, we pretty much have to concentrate on community service,” Santo said. But he believes that will be a strength. “The younger generation, the Persian Gulf generation, they were basically volunteers. They seem to be far more interested in volunteering and getting out and doing things than spending time at the bar. I think that’s going to work very well for us.”
Post 1244 incorporates all the resources and volunteer opportunities that American Legion does. Post 1244 offers committal services at Calverton National Cemetery for veterans who’ve died without family, and has programs like Operation Enduring Care, which provides comfort items and personal care items for residents at the VA Medical Center in Northport.
Education is also a large part of the American Legion does. A program called Boys and Girls State recently sent 22 high school juniors to learn about how democratic government works. “American Legion is very much interested in children and youth,” said Santo. “They are our future.”
Santo has found a sense of pride and purpose in growing Post 1244 from its shrinking membership in 2005. Even many of those who have moved away maintain their membership. “I think if you’re doing it right, people feel a loyalty to you,” Santo said. The post currently maintains members from Florida to Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.
“The best years of my life has been the last 10 or 15 years,” Santo said. “You can see the difference you’re making. It’s right there. If you can help one veteran at a time, that’s great.”