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The Department of France

A generation worth celebrating
 
They called it the Great War. It was the bloodiest conflict the world had ever seen – no small feat – and by April 1917 millions were dead or wounded, and much of Europe was in ruins.
 
For more than two years the United States had sought to stay neutral, but Germany’s repeated aggressions demanded action. Americans understood that if the world was to be made “safe for democracy,” as President Woodrow Wilson declared, they must fight.
 
More than 4,700,000 people were mobilized, half of whom served overseas. That was a huge commitment for the United States, whose military was decades away from the height of its power. But when the guns at last fell silent, the world could not deny America’s doggedness in battle and willingness to share in the sacrifice for freedom. Across France and Belgium, thousands of gravestones testify to that sacrifice.
 
The “war to end all wars” was, of course, no such thing, and its horrors were soon eclipsed by an even bloodier, costlier conflict. World War II is fresher in our collective memory, partly because we still have nearly 1 million of its participants among us. But the first world war deserves far more attention than it receives in our classrooms and national remembrances. Its centenary is an opportunity to elevate its story in the context of our American journey and a challenge to do better by those who died fighting for the freedom of others, thousands of whom are honored namesakes of American Legion posts worldwide.
 
The U.S. World War One Centennial Commission is raising awareness through social media and other channels about the personalities, places and effects of the Great War. Working with the Library of Congress, the National Archives and others, it has built an incredible online resource center for educators, ready for use.
 
The commission, by resolution, has The American Legion’s support. Among its key initiatives is the creation of a long-awaited National World War I Memorial at Pershing Park in Washington, D.C. Plans call for starting construction this winter, and a dedication on Nov. 11, 1918. 
 
There’s also 100 Cities/100 Memorials, a project of the commission and the Pritzker Military Museum & Library to encourage restoration and maintenance of World War I monuments nationwide. Matching grants of up to $2,000 are available, an opportunity for American Legion posts that want to repair and maintain local memorials. Several have submitted grant applications ahead of the June 15 deadline.
 
Those of us who serve or have served in the military owe a debt to our Great War predecessors. They broke the dawn of air and undersea combat. They pioneered military technology that we take for granted today. More, they recognized that the struggle to stay free isn’t just an American one, but a human one.
 
The men and women who went to war 100 years ago founded The American Legion before they even left Europe, to preserve the bonds of service and to support their fellow veterans and their communities. In uniform and out, we benefit from the World War I legacy every single day. It is a generation worth celebrating, now and forever.

National Commander: Department of Veterans Affairs’s Disarming Policy Must Go

Mar 17, 2017
 
An op-ed written by American Legion National Commander Charles Schmidt appeared on Newsweek's website Thursday. In the piece (see below), Schmidt expressed the Legion's support for Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act.
 
Current Department of Veterans Affairs policy unfairly imposes upon the Second Amendment rights of veterans who are experiencing financial difficulty and require VA assistance in managing their money.
Under current VA rules, all such veterans are considered incompetent forcing officials to report them to the FBI to have their names listed on the National Instant Criminal Background Check (NICS) System.
All persons on the NICS list are ineligible to purchase firearms.
 
Unfortunately and unfairly, veterans who are capable of safely operating firearms have been restricted from exercising their constitutional rights.
 
More than 167,000 veterans are currently affected by this policy.
 
Today, veterans can lose their Second Amendment rights for life simply because a VA appointed fiduciary assumed control over their checkbook during a period of temporary mental stress.
 
The American Legion opposes this policy and seeks to rectify this injustice through passage of the Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act which would prohibit VA officials from stripping veterans of their rights to own firearms while preserving the authority of magistrates and other judicial officials to protect the public.
 
Under the Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act, if a judge fairly rules that a particular veteran represents a danger to society based on exhibited mental or criminal behavior, they are free to rule to restrict that veteran from owning firearms. It is clear that this decision should be made by the courts, not VA employees.
 
During their military careers, all veterans have received training in the safe use of firearms. They have also sworn to defend the Constitution with their lives, if necessary. It is only right that due process be followed for the defenders of our Constitution.
 
The new legislation merely transfers the authority to strip a veteran of their Second Amendment rights from VA to the courts.
 
In fairness to VA, the department is doing what current law unfairly dictates.
The question is: Who decides who is competent to possess and own a firearm? The American Legion’s position is that decision should rest solely within the jurisdiction of the court. That is why we support the Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act.

Unfair treatment for Guard and reserves

By National Commander Charles E. Schmidt
 
Under this little-known provision of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, reservists and Guard members can be involuntarily activated without receiving service credit toward benefits such as the Post-9/11 GI Bill, health insurance or early retirement.
 
Even more alarming is that the military has other authorization mechanisms that can be used to deploy these men and women. But they can choose to not use them. The main purpose of this insidious code appears to be budget savings.
 
Take the deployment of a task force of 294 Marines to Honduras last year, for example. Approximately 200 were reservists, according to Marine Forces South. While the active-duty Marines were able to accumulate full benefits, the reservists were not. Adding insult to injury, many of the reservists who deployed thought they were volunteering but learned later that their orders were classified “involuntary.”
 
During the last Congress, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., introduced legislation to correct this injustice. It never made it out of committee. The American Legion hopes to see better results in the 115th Congress.
 
As bad as 12304b is, the misuse of 12301(h) medical orders is even worse. In 2010, Capt. Bryan Lowman of the North Carolina National Guard deployed to Afghanistan, where he contracted typhoid and went into a coma. After multiple surgeries overseas, he was notified while recovering at Walter Reed that his orders had been changed to reflect his medical status. Based on the active-duty time listed on his DD 214, Lowman should be entitled to 90 percent of his GI Bill benefits. Instead, VA downgraded his rating to 40 percent, and he was forced to take out student loans to attend Clemson University.
 
Sadly, Lowman’s story is not unique. More than 20,000 reserve and Guard members have been placed on 12301(h) orders since 2007. Some of these veterans were wounded or injured in combat.
Since our organization’s founding in 1919, The American Legion has been a champion for veterans’ health care and other benefits. We wrote the original GI Bill and backed passage of the Post-9/11 version. As I say so often, the Legion’s influence depends on a robust membership. To do our part in correcting the unfair treatment of our nation’s heroes, we need numbers so that Congress will continue to hear our voice and act.
 
We exist to advocate for people like Sgt. Mark Wong, a Marine Corps reservist in Cleveland. “Once I heard about the (GI Bill) exemption, it blew my mind,” Wong told Stars & Stripes. “We work the same hours as active-duty people doing the same job. The government is saying our sacrifice isn’t worth as much as it is for those on active duty. But we leave behind families and our civilian careers too.”
Sgt. Wong, the Legion believes your sacrifices are worth every bit as much as those made by your active-duty comrades. This inequity needs quick correction by Congress.
 
National Commanders Washington DC Press Conference
Posted 23 February 2017

View the National Commanders Press Conference 23 February 2017

Commander offer views of Congress, Trump policies during press conference

“People can look at me and say, ‘Charlie, you look pretty healthy. You have health insurance. Why do you need your own health care system?' I just tell them, it’s not about me. It’s about millions of veterans who do need VA health care.” Schmidt, who is meeting with the Secretary of Veterans Affairs Thursday, said that timely VA health care should be available to all veterans who wish to use it.

“During his confirmation hearings as VA Secretary, Dr. David Shulkin promised greater accountability, improved access, responsiveness and expanded access within his department. He has said that he opposes privatization and that it would not happen under his watch. The American Legion has so far been impressed with Secretary Shulkin but we do plan to hold his feet to the fire to help him deliver on those promises.”

While Schmidt said he recognizes the value of the VA “choice” program in some instances, he reiterated The American Legion’s concerns about outsourcing care. “There are instances when a private provider is a better option for some veterans. For instance, I live in Hines, Ore., which is more than 200 miles from the nearest VA hospital. In other cases – and these instances are getting fewer – veterans have had to wait far too long to be seen by the VA. So while The American Legion supports choice in some instances, let us not be fooled into believing that there are not some serious flaws with the Choice program. Delays, nonreimbursement for services and bureaucratic entanglements are constant experiences for many who have attempted to use the Choice program.”

He renewed the organization’s push for modernization of the disability claims process and chided the U.S. Senate for failing to act on it during the last Congress. “According to VA’s own 2016 numbers, nearly half a million appeals claims were waiting to be finally adjudicated. More than 80,000 claims were waiting for greater than 125 days. The American Legion finds this completely unacceptable. We believe the appeals modernization legislation, H.R. 457 introduced by Rep. Dina Titus, will simplify and speed up the process as well as make it more transparent. The House did its job in the last Congress, but the Senate refused to move on it.”

Schmidt also expressed concern for veterans exposed to environmental hazards during their military service.

“Many veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange are still not covered for benefits due to the dates or locations that they served. Storing and handling Agent Orange could be just as damaging to their health as spraying it. We are also seeing high cancer rates among servicemembers who participated in the clean-up work at Enewetak Atoll in the late 1970s. The atomic testing occurred in the 1940s and ‘50s, but plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years. Yet their request for assistance is routinely denied by the federal government.”

National security, immigration and the Flag amendment were also addressed at the press conference. “The American Legion welcomes President Trump’s promise to rebuild our military. More than half of all Marine Corps aircraft were unflyable this past December,” Schmidt said before shifting his focus to terrorism. He cited the 9/11 Commission report which faulted the U.S. government for having a “failure of imagination,” when dealing with terrorist plots. “It certainly is not hard to imagine that ISIS operatives would try to enter our country by claiming to be refugees. How do we know this? Because they openly say they will. And when mobs chant 'Death to America' and 'Death to Israel' it isn’t hard to imagine their ultimate goals.”

He pointed out that it is the president and not the courts that have the “ultimate and constitutionally-mandated responsibility to keep us safe.”

Concerned about frequent and well-publicized incidents of flag desecration by protestors, Schmidt addressed one of the counter-arguments to the Flag amendment head-on. “The major argument that opponents of the amendment use is that desecration hardly ever happens. I challenge these desecration-deniers to Google it. They will find thousands of images of protestors doing just that.

“Some in Congress say the Flag amendment is a waste of their time and they have more pressing issues. My response: Pass it and we won’t waste your time anymore! Otherwise you will continue to hear from us.”

Schmidt also defended the media during luncheon remarks at the National Press Club American Legion Post 20. Jokingly referring to a recent Trump tweet about the press, Schmidt said, “You are not the enemies of America.” He cited legendary newspaper publisher William Randolph Heart’s strong support for the GI Bill in the 1940s, and, more recently, coverage of VA wait time scandals as instances where The American Legion and the media shared common goals.

Membership goal: 110 percent

Charles E. Schmidt, National Commander
Once we meet the 100 percent membership target date (May 31), everybody thinks the membership year is over. But we need to continue working membership; let’s not stop. Let’s make the goal 110 percent.
 
A lot of departments look at membership as another number to achieve; however, membership is more than just a number. Membership gives us people to implement and execute our American Legion programs, and membership strengthens our voice on Capitol Hill.
To keep membership momentum strong for the last stretch, I want to remind all of you of my membership incentives.
 
Upon taking office last September for the 2016-2017 membership year, I encouraged membership growth by announcing the award of my commander’s pin to any Legion member who recruited three new members, as well as a certificate to those who recruited one new member. To date, 39,000 new members have been recruited into the Legion. And the new department membership award is now in effect, which provides a monetary award to the departments with the largest percentage increase of new members from Jan. 1 to May 31.
 
I’m asking every Legionnaire to sign up just one new member, just one. It is our responsibility to leave our footprints on this organization and membership is one way that each and every one of us can do that.
 
In the coming months, let’s continue to work membership because we have a legacy to carry forward. It’s not about my remaining months as your national commander. It’s about the sustainability and continuation of this organization, especially as we come up on our 100th anniversary.

Help us account for our missing

By National Commander Charles E. Schmidt
 
According to DPAA, more than 82,600 Americans are still listed as missing from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and other conflicts. Many are simply not recoverable, but The American Legion is adamant that families deserve the fullest possible accounting of their loved ones. “There are 1,261 reasons why we are here,” Marine Corps Maj. Chad Bonecutter told me when I visited Hanoi in November. He was referring to MIAs believed to be in Vietnam. Their recovery and identification is a priority for the DPAA detachment there.
 
I have received similar reassurances that American MIAs from the Korean War also remain a top priority. The South Korean Ministry of National Defense Agency for KIA Recovery and Identification (MAKRI) works hand in hand with DPAA to find and identify U.S. remains.
 
Unfortunately, their neighbors to the north have been anything but cooperative. “Because of the political situation, we cannot access the demilitarized zone or North Korea,” Lt. Col. Choi Hi Chun of MAKRI told us in Seoul. “We estimate there are about 40,000 South Korean and 5,000 U.S. soldiers missing in North Korea. We are doing our best in gathering testimony of veterans and preparing for the political situation to get better so we can start recovery as soon as we are given access.”
 
Massive explosions, faulty data and remains lost at sea are realities of war. Thus, we cannot expect recovery of all missing servicemembers. For example, naval tradition permits fallen sailors to remain with their ship. “I assure you, we will not dive on USS Arizona,” Brig. Gen. Mark Spindler said at DPAA headquarters in Hawaii. “The U.S. Navy considers them entombed in the most sacred place they could be.”
 
Nevertheless, as time passes and wartime memories fade, it is crucial that veterans of all wars share with DPAA any intelligence they may have regarding the whereabouts of missing comrades. That includes information that could lead to recovery of enemy soldiers. Whether it’s a wartime diary entry or a solid firsthand account, such information can be extremely useful to investigators. Family members should also submit DNA to help make identification easier. Go to www.dpaa.mil to learn more about what you can do to help.
 
Nearly half a century ago, my wartime service in Vietnam ended. I came home. Too many did not, and anguish continues for their families. The American Legion has numerous resolutions stressing the importance of a full accounting, and we encourage all official Legion meetings to include an empty chair ceremony. We will never waver in our resolve for a full accounting of all who went to war, no matter where, and disappeared. The families of our brothers and sisters deserve nothing less.

A new year for improved Legion awareness

Charles E. Schmidt, National Commander
The month of January signifies a fresh start to a new year, and it’s also a reminder that the 100 percent membership deadline is only a few months away. One great way to kick of the New Year and meet your membership goal is to conduct an awareness Walk for Veterans.
 
These awareness walks are an opportunity to raise awareness about veterans issues and to highlight the Legion’s impact on communities nationwide, and for Legion Family members to tell their story of why they joined this great organization.
 
The walks can coincide with my visit to your department, but I also encourage departments to conduct them even if I’m not visiting. They can be any distance and should include Legion Family members, Legion youth program participants, Boys Scouts, high school JROTC units, community leaders and anyone else interested in helping bring Legion visibility to communities.
 
Find a list of upcoming walks online at  www.legion.org/walkforveterans. National Headquarters staff can assist in planning and promoting a Walk for Veterans.
 
For more information, contact Matt Herndon, deputy director of the Legion’s Membership Division, by email mherndon@legion.org or phone (317) 630-1406.
 
For Community, State and Nation
 
So, too, is The American Legion, and that’s what makes us vital to this nation, no matter the political season or climate.
 
In my first four months as national commander, I’ve been unsurprised but awestruck by the compassion, dedication and influence American Legion Family members have on local communities in every corner of the country. I am equally confident we can convert those life-changing effects into membership growth, particularly as the Legion moves closer to its centennial. Volunteerism can be contagious.
 
As The American Legion’s Department of Indiana so aptly states in its advertising and digital media platforms, “We Change Lives.”
 
In Cripple Creek, Colo., Post 171 did that for disabled Marine Corps veteran Andrew Smith and his 7-year-old son, Laren. “There were points when my hope and faith got pretty thin,” said Smith, a former machine gunner, after a mold infestation forced them to leave their home. “I was sure going to miss my home, my community. It wasn’t long after that The American Legion wanted to get involved and said, ‘We’d be honored if you let us.’ The amount of honor that they get from helping me doesn’t compare to the amount of honor I get from them helping me.” The house is now being rebuilt, mold-free, thanks to Post 171 volunteers.
 
In Cascade, Idaho, Post 60 was uncertain why membership had grown stagnant in recent years. They developed a strategy: find critical needs in the community and fulfill them. Members inserted themselves into the school system and social services. They found that some children in town went without warm coats, gloves and boots in the winter. They raised the money, discreetly found the families in need, provided the goods, and built vital relationships among educators, local case workers and the families they helped. Membership soon doubled.
 
In Milborn, Del., Post 28 has seen its volunteer efforts in support of poultry producer Mountaire and Thanksgiving for Thousands expand from the local post to the district to the state and beyond. Nearly 10,000 dinners are served to folks in need, whose lives are changed through American Legion volunteerism. “Helping people have a Thanksgiving dinner who wouldn’t normally have one, to me, was a good idea,” member Jim Lafferty said. “That’s what the Legion is about.”
These are just three examples among tens of thousands.
 
The American Legion does change lives. To continue doing so long into our second century, we must share our passion to help others throughout local communities. We must invite new members to join us and be a part of something bigger than oneself, a lesson we all understand from the service. On behalf of all Legion Family volunteers and those who benefit, let’s make a new year’s resolution to share our stories, grow membership and keep changing lives for years to come. 
 
Be a part of our memorial inventory project
As The American Legion nears its centennial year, I’m calling on all posts, districts, counties, areas, zones, departments and affiliates of the organization to help build an unparalleled database of memorials and monuments that honor U.S. military service and sacrifice. The database can be found at www.legion.org/memorials.
 
With the Legion’s memorials database project, it is important to assess the conditions of these memorials – whether it’s a plaque in the park listing a county’s war dead or a well-known community statue or plaza. What better way to commemorate the Legion’s centennial than to spruce up, repair and revive awareness to those who served before us, whose memorials and monuments may be showing the effects of age and weather? It’s also the perfect time for communities to reacquaint themselves with the meaning of their memorials.
 
The American Legion Memorial Inventory Project is not focused on any one war era. We know that Legion posts care for memorials ranging from the Revolution to the Global War on Terrorism, all around the world. In order to ensure their continued respect and protection, we have to index them and bring attention to their original and intended meaning.
 
The web platform asks for the location of the memorial, a description of it, date of installation if known and a rating of its condition. Uploaders are also strongly encouraged to take photos of the memorial and post them onto the database.
 
We know that in virtually every corner of the country, and beyond our shores, Legion Family members have paid tribute to military service, honor and remembrance by carving out sacred spaces in their communities to ensure that the price paid for freedom is not lost on future generations.

Membership is your job and mine

The theory goes that as World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans pass away, the Legion and other veterans service organizations will die with them. But history and reality prove otherwise. The Legion is not an antiquated fraternal group, fixed to one era and place. Quite the opposite. Who we are and what we do have been inextricably woven into the fabric of American life for nearly 100 years.

On Capitol Hill, where we succeeded in getting Congress to pass the GI Bill and acknowledge the link between Agent Orange and veterans’ health problems, the Legion is fighting as hard as ever for today’s servicemembers – and tomorrow’s, too. We championed the Post-9/11 GI Bill and support modifications to strengthen it. When politicians suggest the federal government retreat into privatization of veterans health care, we’re there to argue that nothing can replace a robust and properly funded VA. We’re pushing for appeals modernization so that 450,000 veterans can get answers on their benefits claims. We aggressively pursue further study of alternative treatments for PTSD and TBI.

Across the country, thousands of our posts are pillars of their cities and towns. We teach children to respect the U.S. flag and provide color guards for funerals and community events. We sponsor baseball teams and Boy Scout troops. We connect veterans and their families to Temporary Financial Assistance (TFA) in difficult times or a National Emergency Fund grant after a natural disaster. We’re everywhere.

I don’t see an America without an American Legion. For veterans eager to continue serving, our camaraderie and array of programs are second to none. But if we don’t grow our membership, the Legion’s influence will be greatly diminished. A smaller Legion means a smaller veterans’ footprint nationwide, fewer opportunities to mentor youth in citizenship and patriotism, and a voice in D.C. that’s harder to hear.

In the summer of 1989, the Legion was 3,013,189 members strong. That was before the Gulf War, 9/11, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Our numbers should be going up, not down, as a new generation of veterans flows into our communities.

The doughboys who established the Legion in 1919 recruited 843,016 members by the end of the organization’s first year. They did it without the Internet, TV, radio or phones. They had limited transportation and no interstate highways. Yet their message spread like wildfire: “Join up!” They didn’t care about gender, ethnicity or the cost of membership. All they cared about was the price they’d paid to be eligible for membership. 

We, too, must make it our mission to sign up every eligible veteran we find – not necessarily for reward or recognition, but because they’ve earned the privilege to be part of our family. They need the fellowship of those who know where they’ve been and what they’ve sacrificed. My challenge to every Legionnaire is to recruit one new member this year.

It’s up to us to leave our Legion bigger and better than we found it, and to hand its great responsibility and purpose off to a new generation that, first and foremost, must be asked to join.

 
Keep the membership thermometer rising

As your national commander, it is my goal and responsibility to continue encouraging you to help the membership thermometer rise to 100,000 new members for 2016-2017. Because we must turn membership around.

We currently have more than 21,000 new members, and click here to see a list of who will be receiving a commander's pin for recruiting.

When membership was at a high of nearly three million members 27 years ago, it was because World War I and II veterans had a mission to make sure that no veteran was left behind; that no veteran lacked the medical care that he or she needed. They didn’t care about the cost of membership; all they cared about was the price that was paid to be eligible for membership.

To support the Legion’s five-year strategic plan, and encourage growth, I have three membership incentives. They include a commander’s "Carry the Legacy Forward" pin to any Legion member who obtains three new members for 2017; an honor ribbon for any Legion Family that achieves 100 percent membership by May 30; and a monetary award for the department with the largest percentage increase of new members from Jan. 1 to May 31.

We cannot experience a culture of growth if we do not convince our existing members that renewal in our organization is in their own personal interest, as well as the interest of their fellow veterans and community members. We need to carry the Legion legacy forward; we need Legionnaires in order to keep that legacy alive. And it’s a great legacy that The American Legion has built.

But remember, while membership incentives are a few of the perks to recruiting, it’s not always about earning rewards. It’s about making sure that every veteran has a place to go to find the people who understand what their experience has meant. It’s ensuring that we have enough resources to provide for every veteran, spouse and child so they can all enjoy the American dream that they themselves helped pay for.

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