Austin Living: Continuing to serve

Published 7:43 pm Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Local veteran channels passion into volunteer work


By Amanda Lillie

Sarah Belden, of Austin, knew from a young age she wanted to be in the military. She was so certain, she enlisted in the Marine Corps after her junior year of high school. She had plans to serve for 20 years.

Email newsletter signup

Then, just two and a half years into her service, Belden broke her hip and had to be medically discharged. The whiplash from such a swift change in life plans left her devastated.

“I had a very hard time,” Belden said. “I hated my life. I no longer wanted to be alive.”

Some time after she was discharged, a radio ad piqued her interest: There was going to be a party celebrating the birth date of the Marine Corps at the VFW in Rochester. 

Thinking it could be nice to connect with other veterans, Belden decided to attend. She ended up chatting with a retired first sergeant who invited her to become involved locally with the Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots program.

Since that party a decade ago, Belden has become deeply involved with veterans causes both locally in Austin and at the state level. Repurposing her military service dreams into ways to support other veterans became Belden’s new life plan.

“I started going to Marine Corps League (MCL) meetings, and it just took off,” she said. “All because of a radio ad!”

Now, she is the Jr. Past Commandant for the MCL Department of Minnesota, as well as the Sr. Past Commandant for the local MCL. Belden serves as the Jr. Vice Pack Leader for the state level of the Military Order of the Devil Dogs, which she likened to “the Marines’ version of the Shriners.” Locally, she is the Sr. Vice Pound Keeper for the organization.

Marine Corps veteran Sarah Belden speaks during the Memorial Day ceremony in 2023 at Oakwood Cemetery in Austin. Herald file photo

Similar to the Shriners, the Devil Dogs raise money for children’s hospitals across the country. Last year, the organization presented a $74,000 check to a hospital in Oklahoma where the Devil Dogs’ national convention was held.

“For how small we are (as an organization), it’s really incredible,” Belden said.

Belden’s statewide involvement has led her to be a part of the Minnesota Commanders’ Task Force, which is comprised of nine congressionally chartered veterans service organizations that meet to discuss issues affecting veterans and their families. The task force meets with Governor Tim Walz regularly to move forward legislation that supports veterans. 

Along with her statewide volunteer work, Belden is a member of the all-female American Legion Spam Post 570 out of Austin, and she’s the President of the Austin VFW Post 1216 Auxiliary, where she has been a member since she was 16 years old.

In a time when many VFWs are seeing decreasing membership, the Austin VFW Post and Auxiliary are both seeing steady increases. Belden attributes much of that to Commander Scott Wiechmann.

“Scott has always been an amazing person,” she said. “He’s been commander of the VFW for 10 years, and normally you start to see stagnance, but that hasn’t happened with him at all. It’s constantly growing and changing and getting better.”

Despite the growing membership, the Auxiliary has struggled in recent years with engagement. Belden worries that if more veterans and their families don’t get involved, the local Post and Auxiliary will eventually cease to exist.

“Our veterans need our help,” Belden said. “Our organizations are dying, I will not lie. Members pay their dues but we do not see a lot of those members.”

Active membership is key to the organizations’ successes, which often involve giving back to the community.

“Whatever we bring in with our gambling, we put that into the community. We donate to veterans’ homes and any organization that needs help, the Humane Society, FFA,” she said. “The more that we have coming into these organizations, that is then something we can put back out into the community for betterment.”

Being involved can have the added benefit of being good for a person’s mental health and support network, as evidenced by Belden.

“I found a home within the Marine Corps League and around veterans again,” she explained. “I want to help others, because losing 22 a day is just way too many. I’ve lost way too many friends to suicide. I just want to be there to help, and I want to help make a difference.”