Alan Cotta, the Commander of the American Legion Post 166 in Los Banos for the past nine-and-a-half years, will be passing the torch of post commander to Vice-Commander Tom Higby at the end of June.

In an interview with the Westside Express, Cotta reflected on the accomplishments of the post during his command, “We bugged enough people,” he said, “that they are all coming over here to help us out nowadays.”

When asked to describe himself, Cotta, age 78, said, “Well, I’m an old fart.” Cotta lives with his wife of almost 55 years in the town in which he was born and raised, Los Banos.

He served as a Green Beret in the Seventh Special Forces Group from 1965 to 1968. While he was still in the service, his grandfather and a founder of the local American Legion post, James V. Pernetti, gave him an American Legion membership card. Since then, Cotta has served as an American Legion member for the past 57 years.

Cotta assumed the title of Post Commander nearly 10 years ago mid-term, when the previous commander had to resign for family reasons. Starting from that year, Cotta coordinated with Mike Hughes, the Commander of Los Banos Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 2487, to unify the two posts as the “Los Banos Veterans” to be better able to bring services to veterans on the westside of the county.

The first service provided was a counseling van from the Modesto Veterans Center, which came to Los Banos first once a month and then twice a month. Eventually, that service had to stop because of the distance from Modesto.

“After a while,” Cotta said, “we just kind of had a blank spot there; we weren’t getting help from anybody.”

Through consistent advocating, Cotta and Hughes managed to get the Merced County Veterans Services Office to begin sending someone over to Los Banos.

“It took us about a year to get them on board with it,” Cotta said.

Now Merced sends people to Los Banos four times a month. Services provided by the county veterans office include veteran affairs claims, registration into the local VA health system, PTSD counseling and more.

“There are so many different things they do for us,” Cotta said.

Seven years ago, Cotta and Hughes were contacted by Phillips Medical to add to the  Los Banos Veterans Memorial Hall, 615 E St. the construction of a “pod” where veterans can have telehealth conferencing with VA doctors.

With help from the Fresno Veterans Administration Office and financing from the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, an ATLAS (Accessing Telehealth through Local Area Stations) pod was installed in the Veterans Hall in 2021.

The soundproof pod, with advanced cameras and a large television screen, “has the highest usage of any of the other 15 similar pods in the United States,” Cotta said.

The pod has such a high usage by local veterans because “you could say we push it,” said Cotta. “We push the Fresno VA, we push the schedulers, we push the people that handle our attendance to come and help out with the veterans, so we can get the most usage out of it.”

Alan Cotta, lays a wreath of poppies at the base of the American Flag pole during the 2024 Memorial Day ceremony in Los Banos.

Many veterans now living in Los Banos were originally served by the  Palo Alto VA office. Cotta said that leaders of the Palo Alto VA office would be coming to Los Banos to potentially bring ATLAS pods to the Bay Area.

“ATLAS is one of our biggest projects,” Cotta said, “and we’re having some pretty good success with.”

Cotta mentioned that he has been direct in his criticisms about the VA’s handling of the Los Banos ATLAS pod, specifically scheduling. “We just keep getting in everyone’s way,” he said. “We won’t let them just sit around and do nothing. We push for it.”

Other services the Los Banos American Legion and VFW posts have brought to Los Banos during Cotta’s term as legion commander include twice-a-month Fresno VA Outreach visits to help new veterans register into the Fresno VA health system and inform them of services available to them. Also, twice a month a representative from the San Joaquin National Valley Cemetery helps veterans register for burial services at the cemetery.

Besides the achievements of the Los Banos Veterans during his term as legion commander, Cotta’s favorite part of his volunteer work is leading the local veterans’ honor guard at funerals. The Los Banos honor guard, Cotta said, serves an average of 125 funerals per year at the national cemetery in Santa Nella.

“This is one of my most fulfilling activities,” he said, “because every veteran deserves the honor of a military service.
“It’s been my extreme pleasure to serve our veterans in this community,” Cotta said, “to bring local veterans any and all the services we could. As part of a veterans organization, your service is dedicated first to your fellow veterans and secondly to your community,” which includes providing scholarships, sponsoring local teams and more.

“The people of this community have a very big love for veterans,” Cotta said, “and they’ve always supported us very well. It’s been a pleasure for me to have been commander in this community for so long. I’ve been active in it, sometimes too active.”

Reflecting that the American Legion has been around for 104 years, Cotta added, “I hope the guys who follow me keep it up for another hundred years or more.”

Javier Powell