Who will carry the flag? A response to the Washington Times

 
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Who will carry the flag?  A response to the Washington Times

This morning, the Washington Times, a newspaper I used to read (and enjoy) regularly when I lived in DC, trotted out the old trope about VSOs being out of touch with the newer generation.  Here’s an example, but you can read the whole thing by CLICKING HERE:

Kate Hoit served eight years in the Army Reserves, including a tour in Iraq, but when she tried to join her local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter, someone asked whether she needed an application for military spouses instead.

Now, Ms. Hoit said, she will never join the VFW or the American Legion. She said the organizations are unwelcoming and out of touch with the needs of post-Sept. 11 veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Her complaint is echoed by other veterans of the war on terrorism, who see the venerable veterans groups as fraternities of older men from previous wars. The new generation of veterans instead is gravitating toward groups organized around activities such as running or volunteering, and groups that allow nonmilitary members to take part as well.

Left unstated in the article is that Hoit isn’t exactly an uninterested bystander.  I’ve met her a few times, and she seemed incredibly nice and bright, but she also worked for the VA’s public affairs office (which is still mad at us for calling for Shinseki’s resignation) and she now works for “Got Your 6” which is one of the organizations being touted here in the “Us v. Them” sort of paradigm that need not exist at all.  This is not a sleight on Hoit. Again, she seemed very nice, but if we are going to have a strawman fight between the “Old VSOs” and the young veterans groups, it would be nice to identify that the person works for the latter.

Take for instance the fact that they tout repeatedly in the story the work of Team Rubicon.  I’ll state right up front my bias: I love Team Rubicon as well.  One of their former board members is one of my best friends.They sponsor Tim Kennedy, my favorite MMA fighter, and I’ve wanted to do an embed with TR since basically the day they were founded. The American Legion Magazine featured them and all they do long before anyone was noticing the good they were doing; Team Rubicon and The American Legion’s National Emergency Fund are a perfect marriage, and have been, at a number of disaster sites. In fact, I just got a call last week from TR about their new media person, and we put her in touch with our Executive Director right after that.

Ditto Team Red White and Blue.  My boss has met with their people on a few occasions, including at last year’s convention in Houston.  I know anecdotally that TRWB has weekly activities with our Legion Post in Alexandria, Virginia.  One of the Legion videographers is both an active member of the Post and TRWB.  And he’s a Marine with service in OIF.

Now, I can’t state categorically that someone didn’t have a bad experience at a Legion Post.  I had that problem with a VFW Post when I first became eligible, and was told that “Bosnia wasn’t a real war.”  Fair enough.  I thought it stupid and short sighted, but stuff happens.  I later joined another post when our then National Commander took me down to meet the people there.  The greatest strength of the VSOs, and conversely the biggest challenge is that we are bottom up.  Some Posts are just outstanding, some have leadership problems.  If one doesn’t fit you, then find another, don’t just take a pass on the whole thing. 

Jonn Lilyea wrote up a piece this morning on the very subject, and he gave me the OKAY to reprint what he said:

Vietnam veterans will recall how the VSOs weren’t exactly welcoming them home from their war either. Now look at who is running the VFW and the American Legion – the Vietnam veterans.

The Times article talks about our friends at Team Rubicon which deploys veterans to crises around the world to lend a helping hand. They talk about the fitness club Team Red, White and Blue, and I encourage veterans to participate in those organizations if that’s your thing. But does your club have legislative directors that represent your interests in government?

A good example of what the old VSOs do for you is when the Obama Administration were going to force service-connected disabled veterans into private insurance – the American Legion and the VFW marched into the Oval Office and demanded that they back off – and they did.

The plans for your future are in debate now in Congress and in the halls of the Pentagon and there are only a few obstacles to them screwing you and the rest of veterans to the wall, and those obstacles are the VFW, the American Legion and the Military Officers Association of America, not Team Rubicon or Team RWB – what gives them the strength that they have in Congress and the White House is their membership numbers and the infrastructure that the VSOs have already established for generations. I doubt your local fitness club will spend much time in front of Congressional committees defending your COLA increase, or make a big deal out of the failures of the Veterans Affairs folks.

In addition, the VSOs represent you individually in your VA claims. The Paralyzed Veterans of America got my disability claim processed without me having to leave my house.

Yeah, if you take a short-term view of your life, the fitness clubs and the other organizations look good, but there will come a time when you’ll need more than fellowship from your club. And this administration is a clear example of why we really need the old VSOs, given that they expect more from veterans while cheating us out of the things we were promised.

I’m a life member of the American Legion, the VFW and the Disabled Veterans of America and it’s like insurance for my future, and the future of all veterans even though I didn’t get much out of it when I joined initially. One day, the younger veterans will be running those VSOs like the Vietnam vets are now running them. But can you imagine how future government leaders will be able to screw you without those VSOs?

I came to work at the Legion when I was 26 years old.  I’ve been here for almost 18 years, and I’ll be here another 30 provided they don’t show me the door.  I’m the least social guy on the planet when I am at home, I rarely go out, haven’t been to a movie in Lord knows how long, and don’t particularly care to meet too many more people.  Which is why my wife said, “I barely know you” when she saw me at the Legion convention last year.  I think it is safe to say I know more people in the Legion than I know outside the Legion.  Some of the kindest, warmest, more welcoming people in the world.  I meet random people at Legion events, and end up with them on my Facebook page inside of a day. 

Are there bad Posts?  Sure.  There’s bad everything out there.  There’s probably an Outback Steakhouse out there that stinks, too, but I’ll still stop for a blooming onion every chance I get. 

People always ask me why they should join the Legion.  I jokingly try to deflect by asking how much time do they have.  I’m not real good at articulating why someone should join without knowing what they are interested in, because the reality is we have so many programs that even 18 years here I’m still learning new stuff.  You want to volunteer to help Youths?  Become a Boys State Counselor; get involved in Legion Baseball; volunteer for your Junior Shooting Sports.  You interested in National Security?  Call up our DC office and ask them what they are working on, or how you can help.  Need help with a VA claim?  Our people are the best in the business.  (My claim was filed on March 1 by Indiana’s Legion Department Service Officer, on July 20th I got a check and a rating.) 

I just really hate this false dichotomy that has been set up.  And the sort of back-handed complaint about “Old Guys” frankly kind of pisses me off.

When I came home on leave from Afghanistan I went through the Atlanta Airport, and everyone there stood and applauded, and I accepted more than a couple of offers for free drinks.  When protestors gathered outside Walter Reed with signs that read “Maimed for a Lie” I went out there, and I saw who was counter-protesting.  You know who it was?  The Vietnam Vets.  When bodies of our fallen are escorted by motorcycle riders, who do you think make up the vast bulk of the riders?  The bikes don’t drive themselves.

The Vietnam generation got absolutely hosed when they returned.  They were treated like [expletive.]  And when I went to war, they either held a super secret meeting, or they all collectively said that that is not happening this time.  When I was in uniform people thanked me for my service.   The people who were doing that were in the same place 30 years ago getting spit on by lowlife punks who couldn’t have lasted 2 days in the military, and acted that way out of knowledge that they were less.

You want to be surrounded by people of the same age?  So do I.  I get that.  So find a Post with active younger people.  Or start your own Post.  The hippies in the 60’s talked about "Turn on, tune in, drop out."  (They probably weren’t aware that Dr. Timothy Leary who popularized that was actually a West Point grad.***{ADDENDUM: A Commenter below points out my error: "Minor point. Tim Leary is not a USMA grad. He was convicted by the Honor court, silenced, then resigned after a court-martial exonerated him."})    Well, don’t be that guy or gal.  If you don’t want to join, I think you are making a mistake, but so it goes.  I get it.  But I liked one of the comments over at Jonn’s place: 

While Rubicon and RWB are incredible organizations, I suspect that as the current generation of Veterans gets older, that more will join the AL/VFW, and change the demographics. Gotta slow down sometime; and as the VFW/AL membership numbers drop, and we (the current generation of veterans) get older, this will change.


There will be a new generation to pick up the flag and move forward, like there always has been. Like the Vietnam veterans took it from the WWII veterans, and the WWII Veterans took it from their predecessors and so on, the Legion and the VFW will endure, and we’ll carry the flag forward as our predecessors did before us when our time comes. Please note that while this view may not be shared by all here, it’s an honest opinion, and absolutely no disrespect to my elder brothers in arms in the VFW and AL. You all have done a hall of a job and when our time comes, we’ll be there.

Amen Brother.  Somebody always has to carry the flag.  I’d rather they did it sooner rather than later, but let’s not act like this is Pickett’s charge, and the last man just fell. 

BTW, in the picture above, the guy on the far right is the Legion's director of Legislative (our Chief Lobbyist) who is an Afghan Vet.  Then me, also an Afghan Vet.  Then Ryan Pitts, MOH Recipient and Legionnaire from NH.  Then Mike Denton, a Silver Star Recipient from Afghanistan.  And where was this taken?  At a Legion Hall honoring our newest MOH recipient.

 

ADDED:  As I was writing this up, unbeknownst to me the Commander was working on something as well.  Included here is his letter to The Washington Times:

To the Editor:

 

In reference to “Younger Veterans Bypass VFW, American Legion for Service, Fitness Groups,” I have to wonder why the growing footprint of American Legion posts on college campuses throughout the country -- chartered and operated by the newest generation of war veterans -- was not mentioned.

 

These Legion posts are emerging because they do so much to help student veterans and their families; one such post even helped to change a state law to make tuition rates more fair to those who have served our nation in uniform.

 

The article failed to mention American Legion National Emergency Fund collaborations with Team Rubicon at several disaster sites over the years. The Legion is working with several post-9/11 veterans groups right now, providing leadership on advisory councils in southern California to better connect veterans with services available to them.

 

The American Legion is, indeed, a service-oriented organization; last year alone, it hosted or sponsored more than 1,000 veteran job fairs nationwide. American Legion service officers are now working on the VA claims of more than 700,000 veterans of all ages, and fighting to protect VA benefits every day in Washington. Over the last four months, the Legion conducted a dozen Veterans Crisis Command Centers across the nation, in the aftermath of an all-out meltdown of trust between veterans and VA (which is only now beginning to heal, thanks to changes demanded by The American Legion).

 

At these crisis centers, The American Legion provided face-to-face, firsthand assistance to more than 3,000 veterans and their families along with nearly $1 million in retroactive compensation that had been delayed, thus denied, to veterans and their families of several wartime eras. These centers will continue to operate into 2015 because they are effective and relevant to veterans, particularly those leaving the service and coming home from war today and in months to come (about 1.5 million).

 

Much was missing in this disingenuous portrayal of The American Legion and VFW.

 

I can tell you what would be missing from the fabric of our nation if not for The American Legion and VFW. Missing would be the Department of Veterans Affairs, the GI Bill, livable wages for military personnel, recognition that veterans were poisoned by Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, and relevant education benefits built to serve the 21st-century student veteran.

 

Missing would be national and government awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder. Missing would be millions of community volunteers who save VA tens of millions of dollars in staffing, and raise millions of dollars in donations for veterans health-care facilities. Missing would be tens of thousands of youth programs, from baseball to Junior ROTC,  from Boys State to scholarships for the children of service members who  have given their lives for our country since 9/11.

 

In order to collect such information, the reporter of this piece should have investigated beyond interviews with a handful of veterans who did not have a positive experience at one American Legion post or another (from nearly 13,800 throughout the world), but that would have taken a willingness to tell the story fairly and accurately.

 

Michael Helm

National Commander

The American Legion

Posted in the burner | 8 comments
 
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Comments

The only problem I have with the American Legion is that it's charter explicitly supports religion ("for God and Country), and I don't believe in any gods. That doesn't seem very welcoming, and I don't want to support and organization that "reaffirms its commitment to bring all Americans closer to their Creator and remind them of His proper place at the center of the nation’s life."

The writer of the article in the Washington Times was Jacqueline Klimas. I emailed and told her to get all the facts before writing and demeaning Veterans Organizations and in particular people of age that they too will succumb to.

Rob, I'm not sure what charter you're reading:

The purposes of the corporation are
(1) to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States;
(2) to promote peace and good will among the peoples of the United States and all the nations of the Earth;
(3) to preserve the memories and incidents of the 2 World Wars and the other great hostilities fought to uphold democracy;
(4) to cement the ties and comradeship born of service; and
(5) to consecrate the efforts of its members to mutual helpfulness and service to their country.

Do a search on the Legion CHrter. Not allowed to post hyperlinks here.

I joined the American Legion about 4 years ago when I was invited to be a part of the Honor Guard at funerals. Reason for the late joining? I'm now 77 years old. I was drafted. I never got out of the States during my two years of service. The Army made me a clerk. I worked in an office with Civil Service people. Gravey job. Never had it so good. Now I'm suppposed to work with people who were shot at with real bullets? Who were in real wars? I didn't feel qualified to join these men and women. However, I was welcomed and am still a member of the Honor Guard.

Carl
Thank you for joining and offering your time to give final honors to our comrades.
Like all vet's you were there to server when asked. You, like all all of us signed that blank to to Uncle Sam and risked all you had, up to your life. The fact that Uncle Sam kept you stateside does not detract from your service.

Welcome. Glad you joined

Ernie

PS. I am a vet of the 1991 Gulf War. Only stayed overseas 3 1/2 months. Would have stayed longer, but the Government send us home.

I am 28, a life time member of the VFW, and a regular dues payng member of the American Legion.

Perhaps the Legion posts can fofer the halls for free to the younger Vets groups for their meetings and whatnot.

While Ms Klimas might not have researched and written about everything that the AL and VFW do that is good, I believe there is a good amount of truth in her article. Just sit back at your Post and watch when a new face walks in and see how many people interact with the new person. The age group 25 - 45, that we need involved to keep posts vibrant isn't sitting at a bar drinking and visiting with people. They are active, doing family activities, and meeting with people their own age. They don't communicate like people did 20 years ago. IM, Twitter, and whatever the next big thing will be is how they communicate. The old guard must be willing to change and be open to the ideas of the younger generation. Posts must adapt or die.

at the AL Post I was a member of due to many of the issues at the post that had to do with the difference between WWII vets and Vietnam era vets. There was/is a generational gap and it showed at the post to the point that the post charter was pulled at one of the largest post in VA. Arguments, us versus them, etc., made it uncomfortable for me as older Gulf War vet. I do however think that the AL and VFW all provide great support services and as one of the Vietnam vets mentioned they remember how they were treated and will never let our service members be treated that way again. I will rejoin the AL once I look around for a different post or just join without a home post because of the good they do.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.