Brothers in arms

Newly-elected American Legion commander aims to increase post participation

Joe Loquiao is the new commander of American Legion Post 217 in Gilroy. Photo: Marisa Duran

Joe Loquiao carries photos of his military family in his phone. But he doesn’t have to. They’re literally part of his body. 

Tattooed on his left arm are two images of soldiers, one of whom is Loquaio’s brother Robert who served two terms of duty in the Army in Vietnam. The other is his dad, Donato, who served in the first Filipino-American infantry division that was part of the successful Allied effort to liberate the Philippines from Japan in World War II.

Loquiao himself is also a vet—he served in Vietnam in 1970-71—and he’s the newly elected commander of American Legion Post 217 in Gilroy. Loquaio’s term as commander marks a new chapter at the Gilroy post, which serves veterans from Gilroy, San Martin and Morgan Hill, and boasts a membership of more than 300 people. 

Elected over the summer and taking up his new position in September, Loquiao is launching a new effort to get more members involved in the Post’s monthly meetings. He feels a little of the human touch is the best strategy.

“Every person who comes through that door to a meeting,” said Loquiao at the Veterans Memorial Building at Sixth and Eigleberry streets in Gilroy, “I make sure I go talk to them, let them know I’m here. It seems to go a long way.”

Loquiao served as the Post’s first vice commander under former commander Robert Armendariz. He’s also served on the Post’s honor guard, which attends veteran funerals in the South Valley/San Benito area. 

On Nov. 10—the day before Veterans Day—the Veterans Memorial Building, the home of Post 217, will be the site of a Veterans’ Appreciation Barbecue, presented by the El Camino Club, a service organization made up of members of the California Highway Patrol. 

The following day, Veterans Day, Post 217 will host a ceremony out front of the Memorial Building at Sixth and Eigleberry, presenting the colors and playing taps with guest of honor Gilroy Mayor Roland Velasco. The 11 a.m. ceremony will be followed by a light lunch. 

The twin events will mark the first Veterans Day at Post 217 under Loquiao’s leadership. He’s counting on seeing a difference in attendance to the Post’s first-Thursday-of-the-month meetings. 

“Since I’ve taken office, more people are starting to come to meetings,” he said. “People are coming up to me and saying, ‘I’m going to be at every meeting from now on.’”

Loquiao, 68, is a native of San Jose and though his father and brother both joined the Army, the military journey for Joe was not a smooth one. He enlisted in the late stages of the Vietnam War before he would inevitably be drafted. But, despite his father’s and brother’s service in the military—or, maybe because of it—Loquiao’s family was against his decision to enlist. His older brother had already done two tours of duty in Vietnam and had returned home with PTSD and persistent health problems, all before young Joe had set off for Fort Ord and basic training. 

“He begged me not to go,” Loquiao said. “I even remember him coming down to basic training to try to talk me out of it. He kept telling me, ‘It’s not what you think. You’re going to hate it.’”

His parents were proud of Loquiao’s patriotism and desire to serve. But they were apprehensive, too. 

“When my brother was in Vietnam,” he said, “my parents were always afraid to watch the news. They saw the war on TV every day. When I told them that I was going to Vietnam, it did not make them very happy.”

Enlisting allowed him the privilege to pick his job—or so he thought.

“I was going to be a stock clerk,” he said. “But I never worked a day as a warehouse man. My first two weeks (in Vietnam) were spent in the field. Then they put me in with the 101st Airborne. They gave me an M-16. I did guard duty, went out on patrols, drove trucks, rode in helicopters, everything.”

He survived his tour of duty, but when he came back home, he faced a different kind of conflict.

“I remember the day I came back,” he said. “They gave us the option to take off our uniform if we wanted to. I chose to keep mine on. And I’ll never forget, I took a taxi ride from Oakland to San Jose, and the taxi driver was berating me the whole way. They didn’t like us. I mean, they hated us.”

Ray Sanchez, 81, was one of seven brothers in his Gilroy family, every one a military veteran. He served at Fort Richardson in Alaska during the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union in the late 1950s. He said that the way the public reacted to soldiers in the Vietnam era still resonates today.

“There’s more public participation in honoring veterans now,” he said. “I think people are trying to make up for the shortcomings of how they treated the veterans coming back from Vietnam.”

Post 217, like many VFW and American Legion posts, has some big demographic challenges ahead. Many of their members are aging out of active participation. 

“They’re getting older,” Sanchez said. “They don’t drive at night anymore. They’re ill, or they’ve lost that friend that they used to come to meetings with.” 

At the same time, younger vets from recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not joining in force yet. 

“(Veterans) don’t usually think about going to American Legion or VFW until later in life,” Loquiao said. “They’re busy working, raising kids, and frankly, trying to put (their war experience) behind them.” 

The American Legion, formed at the conclusion of World War I, is now celebrating its centennial, and the Gilroy chapter will mark its 100th anniversary in 2021. Post 217 is still sponsoring programs and events that support veterans and give scholarships to young people. The local post has a strong history, said Sanchez.

“We have members who have been members for 75 years,” he said. “A few years ago, we had an event where we celebrated members who had been here between 50 and 75 years, and we had a full house, including 15 members who had been around that long sitting in the front row.” 

No matter their age, said Loquiao, the Legion’s rank and file are its backbone. 

“Some of these guys are so old, you’d think their brain isn’t running right. But no, they are sharp as ever, and they want to be recognized that they’re still able to contribute. And I do that. I make them feel important because they are important. Above all else, they’re my brothers. And I don’t tell them that. I show them.”

Wallace Baine
Latest posts by Wallace Baine (see all)
About Wallace Baine
Wallace Baine is a staff writer for New SV Media with extensive experience covering community arts in the region.