The power of a flower to drive human emotion can be strong. A red rose on special occasions can make your sweetheart swoon. And a red poppy, on any day, can make a patriot feel reverence and appreciation for fallen military heroes. The power comes from the meanings attached to these flowers.
Most Americans know the red poppy as a solemn symbol of sacrifice made by U.S. servicemembers killed in the line of duty. The iconic flower is worn in tribute to those fallen heroes and in support of veterans, military, and their families. People in other countries wear red poppies in remembrance of their nation’s fallen servicemembers as well.
Since 1921, the red poppy has been the official flower of the American Legion Auxiliary — a community of volunteers serving veterans, military and their families. For decades, the ALA has carried out its poppy program aimed at helping those we serve. Members of the ALA, others within The American Legion Family, and nonmembers voluntarily distribute millions of ALA red crepe paper poppies — most of which are handmade — nationwide in exchange for donations. All of the money collected is used to directly support veterans, active-duty servicemembers, and their families.
The ALA’s poppy distribution days occur year-round, with more emphasis on Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and National Poppy Day® — the Friday before Memorial Day. In the 2018-2019 administrative year, $3.6 million was raised from the 3.1 million poppies distributed.
Who makes the ALA’s red crepe paper poppies? Nowadays, anyone can make them by coordinating with an ALA unit or department, which provides poppy makers with assembly kits. The kits are sold through American Legion Flag & Emblem Sales (emblem.legion.org). Not too long ago, only military veterans were allowed to make these flowers, often as a form of physical and emotional rehabilitation — and they were paid for their work. Veterans are still paid for poppy making.
Based on personal life experiences of each poppy maker, creating these delicate flowers can take on additional meaning. For some people, it evokes strong emotion plus other intangibles, such as healing, appreciation, and purposefulness. Or, the task can conjure up concepts anchored in selflessness, such as “being part of something greater than oneself” and “paying forward a good deed.”
While it is important to make a lot of red poppies to solicit donations to help veterans, active-duty servicemembers, and their families, constantly dwelling solely on poppy production statistics is fruitless for a flower that has the power of honoring, healing, and helping.
‘This helps veterans. This helps their families.’
Albert Ciccone remembers how poppy making calmed his father, Louis, a U.S. Air Force veteran with bipolar depression and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Ciccone recalls being a small child visiting his father who was hospitalized in a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs facility.
“The repetitive nature of the poppy making calmed him; it made him feel connected to his military brothers, and it was something I could be involved in as a small child. He taught me how to count [using the poppies]; I’d give 10 to every veteran in the room. I’d run around handing out those flowers,” Ciccone said.
“I have that feeling of camaraderie when I make poppies now with my fellow veterans, our American Legion post and Sons of The American Legion squadron,” said Ciccone, also an Air Force veteran. Ciccone makes the red crepe paper flowers for the ALA. He is a charter member and the post commander of American Legion Post 201 at the Idaho State Correctional Center, in Boise. He is also a charter member of Sons of The American Legion Squadron 201 at the center.
Of the 35 Legionnaires and 25 squadron members there, 23 of them make poppies. After getting approval from the center’s warden, Jay Christensen, for this activity in November 2019, these Legion Family members have been allowed to meet for the purpose of poppy making twice a week for four hours at a time. In three months, the men produced 10,000 flowers.
“We have a quality control, where we go through them all and make sure the labels are on right. We want to make sure the quality is good. It’s our calling card, with respect to the Legion Family organizations,” Ciccone explained. “It’s a symbol of our veterans’ long history within war service, and I’m a little emotional talking about it. It’s honoring those who came before us.”
Poppy making is a task that the men of this post and squadron take great pride in, he said.
“This is something greater, something important. This helps veterans. This helps their families. We do it to serve others. We are not selfish in our pursuits. It’s about service,” Ciccone continued. “It’s immense that [the Auxiliary’s Poppy Program] has that sort of impact nationally, and our little post is somehow tied into this grand program. We’re honored to be part of it. It’s humbling to be included in that conversation, that message, and this organization’s outreach.”
Expressing our Patriotism
Ryan Harrell, commander of Squadron 201 at the Idaho State Correctional Center, is also a poppy maker.
“The labels we put on every single one of those flowers say ‘American Legion Family,’ and you know, families take care of each other. They support each other. They sacrifice for each other. Our country’s veterans have made, and our servicemembers continue to make, that sacrifice. Now, it’s our turn to do something for them,” Harrell said.
As for the poppy making done by members of Post 201 and Squadron 201, Harrell said, “We don’t do it for the recognition or anything else. We do it because it’s the right thing to do. The people who the program supports are important to us. We’re patriotic. We found ways to express that.”
Harrell’s maternal grandfather Bobby Max Ellison and his paternal grandfather Harold Harrell were U.S. Army veterans. He considers his grandfathers, and other veterans and servicemembers, to be heroes.
“We, as a post and a squadron, want to show our support and appreciation to all of these men and women. We want them to know they’re in our hearts and minds, that they’re not alone. Even in places they don’t expect, they have support.”
Charles “Abe” Abrahamson, adjutant for the Legion’s Department of Idaho, works closely with Post and Squadron 201.
“The American Legion’s Department of Idaho has a really good partnership with the Idaho Department of Corrections in helping the veterans inside IDOC facilities achieve the Legion’s goals, such as continued devotion to our fellow servicemembers and veterans no matter where they are. Allowing Legionnaires and Sons members at Post and Squadron 201 to make poppies for the ALA is one example of this,” Abrahamson said.
Poppy making is just one of form goodwill outreach accomplished by members, and dual members, of Post and Squadron 201. Among their other efforts is cleaning the toys for children who come to the correctional center for visitations, and refurbishing old or damaged bicycles which are later given to children in the community.
Proud to Make these Flowers
U.S. Air Force veteran Gary Proctor has been making poppies for the ALA since he moved into the Iowa Veterans Home in 1997.
“I’m 80 years old and I’m still going, making these poppies. I’ll keep going until my hands won’t let me,” Proctor said enthusiastically. “I could probably make them in my sleep after doing it for so many years. I wake up sometimes and I realize I just dreamt about making poppies!”
His emotion over the red poppy is almost palpable. And it’s clear that Proctor puts his all into every flower he produces. These days, he mostly makes the large, long-stemmed red poppies.
“It takes a lot of time and a lot of patience to make them. It’s a little pay, but it’s not there to make money. It’s there as therapy, to help us out. It’s been a big help for me. That’s one thing: You’ve gotta keep yourself busy around here. That’s why I got a job, and I make poppies. You’ll go crazy just sitting around and looking at the four walls in here,” said Proctor, mentioning his part-time job delivering supplies to staff at the veterans home where he lives.
Proctor’s poppy production averages at about 2,000 per month. The task fits into his schedule. An early riser most days, Proctor said he usually makes poppies in the morning, in his room, before starting his delivery job. Then, he makes more poppies in the afternoon and maybe some more in the evenings.
“It keeps me busy. I’ve got a TV in my room. So I sit there, watch a program, and make poppies,” he explained.
Proctor said he enjoys making the flowers for the ALA because he sees all that area Auxiliary members do for residents of the Iowa Veterans Home.
“They support us here with donations to the veterans home. Then, they buy things, like medical equipment and everything. And they come down and play bingo with us,” he said. “Yeah, I’m kind of proud to make these flowers for the American Legion Auxiliary because I know they help people all over who are like me.”
Sharing the ALA Tie to the Poppy
Like Proctor, poppy making is part of ALA member Ellen Nathan’s daily personal routine on most days. For her, the task is scheduled after her late morning/midday gym workout. She’s usually watching Dr. Oz or Judge Judy on TV while she assembles the flowers for a few hours.
And if she knows she’ll be spending a lot of time in a waiting area such as a car repair shop, doctor’s office, or on an airplane, Nathan will bring her poppy making materials with her. Often, other people take notice. Those who are familiar with the red poppy’s widely accepted meaning thank her for making the flowers.
“For the most part, people will sit there and discuss poppies with me. I’ll tell them what we use them for. I’ll tell them what it’s about. I’ll talk about the American Legion Auxiliary and how we are the best kept secret out there,” added Nathan, a member of ALA Unit 912 in Washington City, Utah. She serves as Poppy Committee chair for Unit 912 and the Department of Utah.
“What moves me about the poppy is what we do with the money we collect when we distribute the flowers,” she continued. “It’s that sense of self-worth and value that comes from making those poppies, which then help us make a difference in the lives of our veterans.”
Her production goal is to make 50 red poppies daily, and sometimes she exceeds that. Nathan estimates that she assembles 10,000 flowers annually.
Given that level of production, it’s hard to believe there was a time when she didn’t know how to make the ALA’s red poppies. One day during her term as president of the ALA Department of Utah years ago, Nathan decided to ask a fellow Auxiliary member how to do it.
“The first time I tried it on my own, at home, it was a little rough in the beginning. But eventually, I caught on as to how to do it. I absolutely love making poppies! I like things where I can see the end of the road, and where I can work on something and see the benefit of having done it. Making poppies is one of those things,” Nathan explained.
Nathan’s been an ALA poppy maker for the past seven years. She doesn’t foresee herself giving up the task.
Ciccone, Harrell, Proctor, and Nathan are ALA poppy makers with four different perspectives. But they each understand the power of the iconic flower and its important role in the American Legion Auxiliary’s longstanding mission of serving veterans, military, and their families.
By Landa Bagley, Staff Writer
This article was originally published in the May 2020 Auxiliary magazine.