Friendly Fire

Rich Navarro never fought in a war, but he sure knows what it's like to be in the middle of a dogfight.

Navarro enlisted in the Air Force on February 9, 1955 -- more than a year and a half after the Korean War ended, and nine days after the federal cutoff date that makes Korean War-era vets eligible to join the American Legion, a patriotic organization for wartime veterans. In spite of this technicality, however, Navarro made it onto the membership rolls of American Legion Post 34, at 3328 Tejon Street, where legionnaires knock back beers, bet on sporting events and shoot the breeze. Navarro belonged to the post for four years and even served as its finance officer.

But in November, Navarro says he was booted out of office and out of the post after the Legion's Colorado headquarters discovered that he didn't meet the requirements for membership. Navarro says his expulsion is just part of the fallout from a firefight that has been raging at Post 34 since last spring, around the time of its annual officer elections.

The trouble began because the roughly eighty members were divided about who should be the post's commander, the incumbent, seventy-year-old Clarence "Link" Valdez, or his upstart challenger, 72-year-old Eloy Salazar.

Valdez, who served in the Army during the Korean War and in the Coast Guard during World War II, had been commander of the post for three and a half years. He felt he had done a good job and was sure he had the support of most of the post's members. He was so confident he would be re-elected, he didn't even bother to campaign.

"I guess I got complacent," he says.

But a number of members were tired of Valdez's tenure as commander, a period that Navarro refers to as a "dictatorship," and when the May election results were tabulated, Valdez had lost by one vote. Although two unreadable ballots were later thrown out after a recount, briefly making the outcome a tie, another election was held, and Valdez again lost by one vote.

"They put a knife in my back," Valdez says of Navarro and his faction of "troublemakers."

And according to court documents, Valdez had no trouble telling his fellow legionnaires exactly how he felt over the course of the summer.

After watching Valdez act "volatile and abusive," Navarro and Larry Jones, the post's sergeant-at-arms, tried to escort him out of the building on July 11, according to a complaint filed by Navarro, Jones and Abel Mendoza. Valdez allegedly told Jones, "Get out of my way or I will kick your ass"; later that day, he called Navarro a "turncoat" and threatened to "whip his ass."

On July 31, Salazar wrote Valdez a letter suspending him from the post on the grounds of "conduct unbecoming" and a slew of other charges.

Still, Valdez didn't retreat. On August 8 he showed up to a meeting and, according to the complaint, "told us that our building 'should burn down!' and that 'You will get yours!'"

A month later, Navarro, Mendoza and Jones asked a Denver County Court judge for a temporary restraining order against Valdez. "Plaintiffs believe that we are in imminent danger of harm to our life and health if the Defendant is not restrained as requested," it reads. "Plaintiffs request that the Defendant be ordered to refrain from attacking, beating, molesting and verbally harassing us, following us, threatening our lives, or threatening us with serious bodily injury."

The judge granted their request: While the order is in effect, Valdez is not allowed to own a weapon of any kind, and he has to stay 100 yards away from the three plaintiffs at all times. He's also prohibited from visiting their homes and workplaces -- and Post 34.

On January 18, Navarro and his co-plaintiffs will try to make the restraining order permanent.

Valdez denies making threats against Navarro, who is 62, or anyone else, and he says he's got eight witnesses to back him up. "Last time I carried a weapon was in the Korean War," he chuckles. Besides, he adds, "I'm seventy years old. Who am I going to threaten? These guys are all so much younger than me."

Instead, he says, he used more subtle means for retaliation. At a statewide American Legion convention this summer he suggested that state legion officials look into Post 34's election operations. And they did: Because of the election snafus, state headquarters has put Post 34 on probation until January 28, when the post's officers will come before the legion's state executive committee to clear up the confusion that surrounded the May contest with its repeated votes and disputed ballots.

"When this thing with Bush and Gore hit, I was like, 'I've been there already. This is déjà vu,'" says state adjutant Pat Smith.

As part of Post 34's election certification process, state headquarters is also looking into the question of Navarro's eligibility, says Smith. Navarro claims the state has already forced him to resign as finance officer because of his ineligibility -- although he has kept his job as general manager of the post's bar -- but Smith says he can't make any determination until he sees Navarro's military records, which are on order from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. And while Navarro asserts that the legion is "pulling the plug" on other ineligible Post 34 members as well, Smith says he's not aware that anyone else is being scrutinized.

Congress created the American Legion in 1919, and membership eligibility is based on honorable active-duty service with the U.S. Armed Forces during the eras of World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Lebanon/Grenada, Operation Just Cause (Panama), and Operation Desert Shield/ Storm. Unlike the Veterans of Foreign Wars, who have to have served in active battle zones, Legionnaires simply need to have served during the eras in question. The beginning and ending dates of those eras are determined by Congress.

Valdez admits that Post 34 had been pretty lax about handing out membership cards: Anybody could come in, have a beer, state his dates of service and fork over $25 in yearly dues in exchange for membership. Although they are supposed to bring in their discharge papers to prove their eligibility, few men actually do. Each of Colorado's 160 American Legion posts controls the specific terms of its admissions policy, but all legion applicants are supposed to sign forms professing their eligibility, Smith says.

Smith is among those who have been subpoenaed to testify on Valdez's behalf at the hearing on January 18. Smith says he will testify only that Valdez is a member of the American Legion and that his fellow legionnaires can't yank his membership unless they conduct a special hearing.

That means that in spite of the July letter suspending Valdez's membership, he still belongs to Post 34, and he's ready to fight for his right to return.

"I got a pretty good little speech I'm gonna give the judge," he says.

If the attempt to make the restraining order permanent fails, Valdez says he'd like things at the post to get back to the way they were when he was commander.

But, he says, he doesn't think he'll run for office again.

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Megan Hall