American Legion Auxiliary members' compassion for our mission motivates us to join with Legionnaires and Sons of the American Legion members to converge on our nation's capital for the Washington DC Conference.
American Legion Auxiliary members matter because we’ve been effective advocates for our veterans and military families since our founding.
We belong to the ALA because we served in the military or are directly related to someone who served our great USA during a time of war. Our compassion for our mission motivates us to join with Legionnaires and Sons of The American Legion to converge on our nation’s capital for the Washington DC Conference.
Hundreds of advocates make a difference. Members of The American Legion Family have been a prominent and respected voice in D.C. for decades, with quite a track record of success: It is The American Legion Family that has been the think tank and advocacy force behind every major legislative act improving life for our veterans and military families since World War I.
The 2017 Washington DC Conference detailed The American Legion’s legislative priorities for a new Congress and new President of the United States. National Commander Charles E. Schmidt presented the Legion’s testimony before a joint session of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees. The ALA was recognized by Congress as members attended the testimony to support the Legion’s legislative and public policy priorities to help veterans.
“Nearly 117,000 Americans gave their lives to successfully liberate Europe. Among our ranks, they are never forgotten,” Schmidt said of WWI veterans. “The American Legion was born of this generation, which inspires us and our legislative agenda today just five weeks away from the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into the war that was supposed to end all wars. But it didn’t … The American Legion’s legislative agenda, in a new era of global war, bears many resemblances to that of our first generation.”
The Legion’s priorities include: “… compassionate treatment for service-connected mental health conditions, defined as ‘shell shock’ or ‘combat fatigue’ at the time, now known as ‘post-traumatic stress disorder.’” Read the Legion’s legislative agenda in full at www.Legion.org.
A day earlier, Schmidt introduced U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. David Shulkin to the 1,000 American Legion Family members attending the “Commander’s Call,” and praised the direction the VA seems to be headed. “We see a lot of positive signs coming from Washington,” Schmidt said. “The new VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin seems committed to making the VA better than ever before. This isn’t to say that there aren’t some serious problems to address. But he does agree that it is a system worth saving.”
American Legion Auxiliary members attending our ALA Washington DC Conference general sessions were presented a day of learning on timely issues about how we can better support our veterans.
The sessions Monday began with Michigan WGVU Public Media PBS executive Tim Eernisse captivating ALA attendees by asking one thought-provoking question: “What’s your why?” Eernisse complimented ALA members’ commitment to serving our veterans, then said we often say “who we are” — each a member of the ALA; and “what we do” — I work on service projects and help veterans, yet the most important thing is sharing “why we matter” — why do each of us belong to the ALA?
“I challenge you to do two things,” Eernisse said. “First, find your why. Second, you need to wear it on your sleeve, as proudly as you wear the Auxiliary emblem. Each and every one of us has that moment in our lives that deeply touches us. When you share that, it’s impactful. Those stories mean something.”
Eernisse stressed that sharing why you serve veterans and their families is a valuable tool to grow membership. “When you share why you do what you do with others around you, it’s easy to grow. You’re not trying to sell them on something — you’re sharing a lived experience,” he said.
Given the number of aging veterans who served in previous wars, coupled with the needs of our newest veterans of the War on Terror, many more of us are caregivers — without even realizing it.
Members received a wealth of information from Laura Bauer, national program director for Members received a wealth of information from Laura Bauer, national program director for Operation Family Caregiver at the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving at Georgia Southwestern State University; John Schall, chief executive officer of the Caregiver Action Network; and Steve Schwab, executive director of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation.
Panelist Melissa Comeau shared how she didn’t readily see herself as a military caregiver. Her husband, retired U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Stephen Comeau, completed five combat deployments, and after 13 years of service, he was medically retired due to several combat-related injuries. Even though Melissa was managing Stephen’s medication and taking him to appointments, she didn’t identify as a caregiver; she just thought she was doing what any wife would do.
Comeau’s book Sleeping with the War (2015, War Writers’ Campaign Inc.) addresses life after combat from the family and caregiver’s perspective. She joined other panelists who shared how ALA members can help the 5.5 million caregivers in the United States.
The caregiver panel moderator was Jane Meier Hamilton, a nurse for 40 years and family caregiver for 20. Hamilton founded Partners on the Path, a certified Women Owned Business which provides caregiver support programs to businesses and nonprofits.
Attendees were asked to encourage fellow caregiving American Legion Auxiliary members to identify themselves as military and veteran caregivers in the Online Community Directory for the Military Veteran Caregiver Network.
For more caregiver resources, visit www.milvetcaregivernetwork.org, www.elizabethdolefoundation.org, www.operationfamilycaregiver.org, www.caregiveraction.org, and www.partnersonthepath.org.
Washington DC Conference attendees next heard great ideas from a panel about how to get more women veterans involved in the ALA. Jackie Maffucci, research director and chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), said teaming up with other veterans service organizations would help to reach a wider audience.
“There might be a younger woman veteran who is interested in IAVA, but who hasn’t considered the Auxiliary,” Maffucci said. “Collaboration is so important. We’re often so focused on doing good in our respective organizations that we forget how much we can benefit by having that conversation and coordination.”
Deborah McKay served 28 years in the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps. She believes the ALA is in a good place to reach out to women veterans who feel disenfranchised and are looking for community and purpose. She recommended organizing programs and events for women veterans in each community.
Meg O’Grady, vice president of Military and Public Sector Solutions for Kaplan University, and Sabrina Clark, director of VA Voluntary Service, talked about expanding care of veteran patients into the community. Clark has worked to strategically integrate volunteers into critical VA programs such as those for homeless veterans, hospice and palliative care, and caregiver respite services.
Let’s reach out to female veterans! Any woman eligible to join The American Legion is also eligible to join the American Legion Auxiliary, regardless of whether she is a member of The American Legion. During the 2017 membership year, the ALA is waiving the national portion of women veterans’ ALA dues for the first year of membership. Go to www.ALAforVeterans.org to learn more.
Until the Vietnam War, when U.S. military servicemembers returned from war, they were greeted with gratitude and respect. That was not the case for many of the men and women who returned from serving in the Vietnam War; many were met by hateful demonstrators, taunted, and treated badly.
Legionnaire Don Nelsen, husband of ALA Northwestern Division National Vice President Virginia Nelsen, served in the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne, and still remembers what it was like for soldiers returning home in the 1960s and 1970s.
“It didn’t matter where you were or what you did; you were spit on and called every name in the world,” Nelsen said. “Vietnam veterans came home and packed up their uniform and anything military-related and put it somewhere because they were sick of being treated like dirt.”
The American Legion Family and others have urged government officials and community leaders to take steps to rectify the way Vietnam Era servicemembers were treated, including belated welcome-home ceremonies to honor their service to our country during the Vietnam War.
In a spirit of homage, ALA and Legion Family members gathered during the Washington DC Conference for a wreath-laying ceremony at the apex of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to pay tribute to those who served in the Vietnam War and remember those killed or missing in action.
Several members commented quietly how much it meant because so many lost friends, brothers, sisters, and fellow servicemembers during the lengthy Vietnam War. Members visited and learned about the diff erent parts of the memorial — the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, the Three Servicemembers Statue, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, and the In Memory plaque.
Auxiliary members walked solemnly along the black-granite wall where more than 58,000 names are inscribed, sometimes stopping to place photos of veterans or do a name rubbing of the engraved name of a loved one.
“It never gets easier … I’ve visited the memorial five times and the tears still flow,” Don Nelsen said. “It’s important we remember these people and what they did for our country.”
Barbara Santillanes, ALA New Mexico department president, tearfully traced the name of Mario Laguna a friend of her husband, Joe Santillanes. “Although it’s difficult, it’s fulfilling to see a friend of ours was honored this way,” she said.
ALA New York Department President Debbie Kryczkowski, who had five brothers who were Vietnam Era veterans, paused at seeing the name of a childhood friend, Jerry T. Evans. “It’s sad because it brings back a lot of memories,” Kryczkowski said. “There were so many who didn’t come home.”
To honor veterans who served during the Vietnam War but aren’t eligible for inscription on the wall, an “In Memory” program was created for Vietnam veterans who served, returned home, but later died as a result of their service, such as exposure to Agent Orange. A plaque dedicated in their memory is adjacent to the Three Servicemembers Statue.
To add a veteran to the “In Memory Honor Roll,” go to www.vvmf.org/InMemoryProgram and complete the online application. The program was created to be more inclusive of those who served during the Vietnam War. To be added to the honor roll, family members need only provide proof of service in Vietnam, including copies of the death certificate, two photos, and a short bio.
Jim Knotts, who heads the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, informed attendees the honor roll resides online, but an induction ceremony takes place at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Saturday before Father’s Day where families are invited to participate and pay tribute.
“Auxiliary members can help find the families who could take part in this so we could properly recognize their loved ones,” Knotts said. “This program allows healing for Vietnam veterans and our country as a whole.”
This year marks the 35th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. For more information, visit www.vvmf.org.
At the Washington DC Conference Public Spirit Award Luncheon, ALA National President Mary Davis honored the Bob Woodruff Foundation, founded in 2006 after ABC World News Tonight reporter Bob Woodruff was critically injured by a roadside bomb while covering the war in Iraq.
“I nominated this organization because its great work perfectly aligns with the ALA’s mission of serving veterans, military, and their families,” Davis said. The ALA Public Spirit Award is the Auxiliary’s top award recognizing inspirational individuals or corporations for their contributions that positively impact our communities through service to our veterans.
The Woodruffs, who were working in China at the time of the awards luncheon, created a special video message thanking Auxiliary members for their continued service to our nation’s heroes. “We are so in awe of the work you do every single day for our nation’s veterans,” Woodruff said in the video. “We are grateful to not be alone in our efforts to keep the spotlight on the needs of our veterans.”
Anne Marie Dougherty, the Foundation’s executive director, accepted the award on the Woodruff s’ behalf. “It’s humbling to be in your presence and to understand what you do,” Dougherty said. “We know that volunteerism and the network of community-based support is the bedrock of our nation, and what your organization is doing is unparalleled.” And with the ability to join new members online, Dougherty also became an ALA member during the luncheon via a smartphone signup!
During last year’s Washington DC Conference, members were presented a moving video clip from producer Bob Massie’s Letters Home film project. The soon-to-become TV series follows Massie and his son, Matt, as they connect long-lost World War II memorabilia with their rightful owners. They purchase boxes and other war memorabilia at auctions and other sales, and then, through a thorough research of the owner’s history, return the items to either the owner or their closest living relative. “Every one of those boxes has a story,” Massie said.
The first episode of Letters Home is now ready, and ALA members attending the 97th ALA National Convention in Reno may attend a premiere viewing and special reception hosted by USAA. Learn more at www.LettersHome.com.
“It has been a truly rewarding experience…our American GIs took themselves from home and allowed themselves to be placed in harm’s way around the globe to influence the future of liberty and freedom,” Massie said.
The American Legion Auxiliary and Bob Massie’s Naptown Media announced a major initiative to produce a three-part documentary, Women of the Holocaust. Massie and ALA National Secretary Mary “Dubbie” Buckler described the need for the project now, 70 years after the rise and defeat of Hitler. Holocaust survivor Nesse Godin teaches ALA Girls Nation senators about life before, during, and after the Holocaust. The ALA’s close relationship with Godin (pictured on the cover of the November 2016 issue of Auxiliary) inspired the film project so that future generations will learn what happened in WWII and how such evil rose to power, resulting in the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Several Holocaust survivors were interviewed in the promotional film trailer that premiered at the ALA’s Washington DC Conference. One survivor observes that on a “brilliant, Sunday morning, the world I knew and loved changed forever.”
Emotions were high and there were no dry eyes in the room as the audience listened to the women speak in the documentary trailer.
The documentary series will take viewers from the end of WWI, “the war to end all wars,” through life before WWII and the descent into darkness. With the rise of the Nazis and the ensuing horrors, the film will focus on the experience of women in the unrelenting nightmares of war; then, outliving the darkness, follows survivors through the long and painful journey after the Holocaust. Remarkably, one resounding message espoused by the Holocaust survivors featured is to forgive and love. “I discovered I had one power: the power to forgive,” said survivor Eva Mozes Kor, who, with her twin sister, survived the experiments of Dr. Josef Mengele.
Godin surprised attendees when she was escorted onto the stage by ALA National President Mary E. Davis. The audience greeted her with a lengthy standing ovation. Godin, who stayed to meet and take photos with many members, shared the promise she made to the women who helped her survive the concentration camps, saying to the audience, “That is why I joined this project, and will continue to help so that it becomes a success.”
An initial $25,000 donation from The Marcia Barnes Giving Fund funded the concept trailer. The series will take about two years to produce, then will be marketed to public television. Stay connected to ALA media for future updates on both Letters Home and Women of the Holocaust.
While in our nation’s capital, many American Legion Auxiliary members, alongside their department’s Legion Family members, met with their Congressional representatives to advocate on behalf of veterans, military, and their families. An ALA advocate shares her informed ideas and opinions with government officials, including members of Congress, the President of the United States, governors, state legislators, mayors, and local government officials.
ALA advocacy succeeds when many members contact government officials and their staff to promote the Legion’s legislative agenda and public policy concerns. By virtue of our numbers, the more than 3 million members of The American Legion Family are indeed a mighty force advocating for a better future for our veterans. Because the American Legion Auxiliary represents women veterans and the wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, and direct descendants of veterans, we bring a unique perspective and voice to promote public policy. Advocacy is not the responsibility of a few; it is the responsibility of all our members who care about our veterans and servicemembers.
How to be an advocate? Step up and advocate yourself, or pay your dues and recruit new members so we have the resources to share our advocacy outreach messaging. Most Legionnaires will tell you it’s the ALA that carries the ball on legislative outreach at all public policy levels with calls, letters, and visiting elected officials.
Where to start? The ALA Legislative Advocacy Guide helps each Auxiliary member become a competent and informed advocate. It includes tips on information gathering, making legislative contacts, and building relationships with legislators and their staff at all levels of government.
The guide instructs members how to identify their legislators at the local, state, and federal levels, then how to build relationships with legislators: Do you know who your elected officials are and what their policy views are? While many of us never meet the people we elect to public office, we can still advocate by contacting them.
The key to the Legion Family’s successful legislative influence is based on fostering respectable relationships between members and our legislators. That starts with politely contacting your legislator throughout the year. Public officials want to know the opinions of their constituents who will re-elect them based on their performance in office. You do not need to meet with a legislator in person to be a good advocate. Visiting their local offices and attending town hall-type meetings are the best ways to become acquainted with your elected officials and their important policy staff members. Writing letters, sending emails, and making phone calls are also easy ways to contact legislators.
Building rapport with a legislative staff member often is necessary to effectively advocate for the Legion’s legislative priorities. Members of Congress and most state legislators rely on staff to handle constituent contacts. Also, legislators’ staff members often represent them at public functions, so be sure to meet their staff and invite them to events and ceremonies to which you invite public officials.
See the ALA Legislative Advocacy Guide section on “Communicating with Your Legislators” for full details on the variety of methods to make your messaging effective.
We succeed when working together, and that means reporting your advocacy communication results to your Auxiliary Legislative Committee chairman. For example, if you meet with your mayor, report that to your unit and department Legislative chairmen. If you meet with or receive a letter from your Congressional representative, report that to the national Legislative chairman and copy your department Legislative chairman.
ALA members should report outcomes of in-person meetings with U.S. elected officials or their staff members directly to the Legion’s Legislative Commission using the online Congressional Report Form at www.Legion.org/legislative/aar. This form asks who attended, the outcomes, your personal meeting observations, and any recommended follow-up actions with the legislator or his or her staff .
Remember: The American Legion and Auxiliary are nonpartisan; we have no political action committees and make no political campaign donations. We advocate solely based on our mission, not campaign support. That sets us apart from other veterans service organizations. It’s why public officials highly respect hearing from someone representing The American Legion.
See how you can advocate for veterans: Download a free copy of the ALA Legislative Advocacy Guide by logging into the Members Only area at www.ALAforVeterans.org.
Top donors for the American Legion Auxiliary and American Legion Auxiliary Foundation enjoyed a Thank You Reception honoring their financial contributions to help further our mission of service. ALA National President Mary E. Davis and ALA Foundation Board of Directors President Linda Boone hosted the event, emphasizing their sincere thanks to our member donors for giving their time, talent, and treasure to better serve our veterans, military, and their families.