… Making a positive difference in the lives of veterans for nearly 100 years
Invoking the spirit in which our founding fathers wrote the U.S. Constitution — taking heed to start it with the phrase “We the People,” hundreds of American Legion Family members gathered on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in February to address the 114th Congress.Exercising their rights as U.S. citizens to impact government policy, they talked with members of Congress in one-on-one meetings and gathered in a standing-room only session to support American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett as he addressed a joint hearing of the Senate and House of Representatives Committees on Veterans’ Affairs. Members called upon Congress to honor the promises they made to military servicemembers and veterans — the very people to whom we owe our freedom.The American Legion has been steadfast in advocating for veterans since the 1920s. The Legion Family’s passion for veterans’ care hasn’t subsided, as was evident in the events that unfolded during the 2016 Washington DC Conference — from insightful sessions to the Commander’s Testimony. With nearly 300 American Legion Auxiliary members participating in lobbying efforts on the Hill, the importance of this journey to the nation’s capitol was strong.Here are several of the top reasons why the ALA goes to Washington, D.C., each year — and why our advocacy matters.
The American Legion has an advocacy record that has generated real change for veterans, including being instrumental in the creation of the U.S. Veterans Bureau in 1921 (the forerunner of today’s Veterans Affairs); helping draft the GI Bill of Rights in 1944; championing the formation of the U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals in 1989; and helping to pen the Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Act of 2008 and the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform Act of 2009.The Legion Family has been unrelenting in pushing for change that leads to results. As Commander Barnett said during his passionate testimony during the Congressional hearing, it’s not enough to have words on paper. “Execution is the problem,” Barnett said, referring to the need to follow through on legislation that would address recent problems in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.On Feb. 23, the day before the Commander’s Testimony, Legion Family members participated in meetings to make sure they were reinforcing the Legion message. The “Know Before You Go” session at the Washington Hilton Hotel ensured that everyone was familiar with the Legion’s legislative agenda before the 114th Congress.Hundreds of Legion Family members then departed the Washington Hilton Hotel and headed to Capitol Hill to keep their appointments with their respective member of Congress. In personal discussions with their U.S. representatives, senators, and legislative aides, they espoused the Legion’s legislative priorities:• Fully fund a superior national defense as the global war on terror continues• Ensure real accountability within the Department of Veterans Affairs• Institute a 21st century healthcare system• Develop alternative help for veterans struggling with mental health issues and brain injuries• Make sure transition programs are not adversely affected by sequestration• Create opportunities for veteran business owners• Provide opportunities through Post-9/11 GI Bill• End veteran homelessness• Reject any attempts to diminish benefits earned by veterans• Repeal unfair off sets that penalize disabled veterans and widows• Protect the American FlagThe next day, Feb. 24, during the Legion National Commander’s testimony to the joint legislative session, Barnett expressed the frustrations of American Legion Family members, veterans, and their relatives that accountability has been lacking when regarding follow-through on the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014. Among its other provisions, the legislation was enacted to “provide real accountability for incompetent or corrupt senior managers.”Citing a recent incident, Barnett pointed out that the legislation does not follow up on its promise to hold VA employees accountable for unscrupulous practices that impact veterans.“In service to our country, they held up their end of the accountability bargain,” he said to Senate Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, House Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, and the other present legislators.“We can only achieve accountability to America’s veterans if we work together — honestly and transparently — to prove that a grateful nation will put real execution behind all the words,” Barnett said. “Congress, VA, the DoD and veterans service organizations must show those who have served in uniform that America can be as accountable to its veterans as veterans have been to America.”He also expressed that The American Legion believes those challenges can and will be overcome. “It’s the nation’s moral duty to provide a VA healthcare system that’s accessible, efficient, compassionate, and capable of providing the best possible treatment to the men and women who have defended our nation.“We need to find different ways to succeed,” Barnett continued. “It’s time to expand the definition of accountability.”Following his remarks, the congressmen asked questions and engaged in a discussion with Barnett, and other Legion members who joined him as witnesses, to further understand the Legion’s findings on various issues related to servicemembers and veterans.
As fitting of the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., has the most war memorials in the United States, making it among the top reasons more than 18 million people visit it each year. And for ALA members attending DC Conference, the trip provides the opportunity to make a personal connection with those who served our country.Every year, ALA members hold a wreath-laying ceremony at one of those memorials. This year, led by ALA National President Sharon Conatser, members gathered at the Korean War Memorial to honor the sacrifices made by the 5.8 million Americans who served their country during the Korean War, including Conatser’s father. The ceremony, which was part of an evening tour of Washington DC War memorials, took place in the midst of the 19 7-foot-tall statues that make up part of the Korean War Memorial. ALA members were moved as they looked into the faces of the statues. Many members noted that the stainless steel statues of servicemembers looked especially lifelike against the cloudy evening sky, with lampposts casting a glow on each image.Tour guides explained the history of the memorial, sharing that the ponchos worn by the statutes were necessary for servicemembers who encountered freezing temperatures in Korea in the 1950s. The grass and juniper bush-laden area in which they silently march, eyes looking in all directions, are representative of the rice paddies servicemembers walked through in that country. In all, 36,574 Americans died in hostile actions in the Korean War theater. Of those, 8,200 are listed as missing in action, lost or buried at sea. In addition, 103,284 were wounded during the conflict.The Korean War memorial also includes a 164-foot-long Mural Wall, which consists of 41 panels containing more than 2,400 etchings of servicemembers from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard, as well as their equipment. The etchings are of photographs obtained from the National Archives.At the memorial’s Pool of Remembrance, these words greet visitors: “Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.”Auxiliary members, who filled four busses for the nighttime tour, also made stops at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, United States Marine Corps War Memorial, and the National World War II Memorial.
In keeping with another ALA tradition, members gathered for the Public Spirit Award Luncheon on Feb. 22 to honor Josh Bleill, a native of Greenfield, Ind., who received a Purple Heart as part of his service as a Marine corporal during the War on Terror.Conatser presented Bleill with the ALA’s Public Spirit Award, which recognizes inspirational people and corporations who move others to action. Bleill joins a prestigious list of recipients that include The Home Depot Foundation (2015), Secretary of State Colin Powell (2003), filmmaker Stephen Peck (1993), and former Ambassador Jeanne J. Kirkpatrick (1987).Like those honored before him, Bleill was recognized for his selfless service and motivating others. Bleill, who has served as a spokesperson for the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, has regularly shared the story of his life in the wake of a bombing in Iraq that killed two of his close friends and left him as a double amputee.Just before the luncheon, Bleill emphasized that whenever he talks to a group or an individual, it’s always on his mind that he’s not only speaking for himself. “These stories are not just my story. I have never forgotten the sacrifices of those who are allowing us our freedoms,” he said.Bleill also said his talks have helped forge a bond with veterans who served in other war eras. After hearing him, some of those veterans have approached Bleill to open up about their own experiences.“They tell me stories they probably had never shared; they had just been holding in things for a long time,” he said. “By me talking about my experiences, it helps them to open up.”In making the award presentation, Conatser said Bleill has been incredibly inspiring during his talks with audiences of all ages, including elementary and high school students. “It’s my privilege to present him with the American Legion Auxiliary’s Public Spirit Award,” she said. “He epitomizes what this award is all about. Through his speaking engagements, he’s able to share his story and what it means to stay positive in the face of obstacles.”To the women who gathered for the luncheon, Bleill said, “Thank you so much for this honor. It means a lot to know that people like you, the members of the American Legion Auxiliary, are supporting those who serve and are giving back to their families and their communities.”
No ALA conference, convention, or meeting would be complete without members challenging themselves to learn how to better carry out the ALA mission to meet the needs of our nation’s veterans, military, and their families.As part of the DC Conference, members gathered in sessions and breakout workshops to learn from expert guest speakers on numerous topics:• How to better engage youth in the ALA through more contemporary avenues• How to better support Post-9/11 servicemembers, veterans, their families, and volunteers• How to promote the American Legion Auxiliary brand frequently and accurately• How to advocate for professional and occupational credentialing for servicemembers• How to lobby at the grassroots level more effectively• How to effectively reach out to and support servicemembers at military bases• How to support the ALA FoundationIn addition to ALA members and National Headquarters staff who served as speakers, members also heard from Dr. Linda Spoonster Schwartz, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ assistant secretary for policy and planning; Victoria Pridemore, associate director, Military and Veterans Student Services at The George Washington University; Bill Rausch, executive director of the military advocacy organization Got Your 6; and Fred Wellman, CEO of Scoutscomm Inc., a communications and advocacy firm that supports veterans.
Another long-lasting tradition for the DC Conference is the Parade of Checks, in which departments nationwide present the ALA national president with donations to support her chosen cause. This year, Conatser chose to make the Auxiliary Emergency Fund the recipient of donations presented during the Parade of Checks.With individuals and department representatives walking to the stage with oversized “checks” highlighting their donations, Conatser was visibly moved with emotion by the display of generosity. But when the final record-breaking amount of $110,000 was announced, she broke down into tears.“This is simply unbelievable,” Conatser said. “I have no words to completely express my gratitude. It means so much to me because it represents members helping members in their time of need. Thank you, thank you, so very much.”During the conference, ALA’s top 15 donors of 2015 were treated to a private evening reception as an expression of gratitude for their ongoing financial support of the ALA and the ALA Foundation. Conatser and ALA Foundation Board President Linda Boone welcomed the guests and thanked them for their generosity.
With the ending of yet another Washington DC Conference, members not only headed home with the knowledge that they’re making a difference, they also left with the confidence that we live in a country that makes it possible for the voices of individual people to be heard.As Frank, one of the tour guides who hosted ALA members on sites throughout D.C., said, “There’s a lot of meaning in these visits. The memorials can remind you why it’s special to live in the United States. They spark conversations. You may see someone putting their hand on a name on the memorial, and there’s a reason for it. They may say, ‘This guy died trying to save my dad’s life.’”The Washington Hilton Hotel, where Legion Family members gathered for the conference, also has historic significance: It is the location where President Ronald Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt 35 years ago, as well as the gathering place for many government officials, including presidents, to make announcements.Being in our nation’s capital makes history come alive. It reminds us what is special about our nation.
The Washington DC Conference is high energy and filled with passion about advocating for the rights of veterans, so it’s not unusual for attendees to shed a few tears at some point during the meeting. The 2016 conference had two especially moving segments.
As a powerful reminder of why we do what we do, two guest presenters showcased videos — one that highlighted the heartfelt expressions of gratitude from high school students who learned history firsthand by going to Normandy. The other video presentation was of a World War II veteran who was presented with his wartime memorabilia as well as a combat medal to replace the one he had lost many years before.Cathy Gorn, the executive director of National History Day, described how transformative a trip to Normandy was for a group of high school students who held graveside memorial ceremonies for fallen soldiers while they were there. As part of a grant, students and their teachers take the trip to Normandy after studying about D-Day and World War II.Gorn talked to members about how much of a difference it can make to support students in various programs like this. She said if they are able to emotionally engage with what they’re learning in history lessons, they are able to make a more meaningful and lasting connection to its importance.
Producer Bob Massie presented a video from his Letters Home film project. The TV series project traces the steps of Massie and his team as they try to connect WWII memorabilia with their rightful owners. They purchase boxes of war memorabilia at auctions and other sales. “Every one of those boxes has a story. I want to open the box and release those stories,” Massie said.In the promotional clip, a WWII veteran shows emotions ranging from smiles of joy to tears of loss and gratitude as he sifts through the belongings he had lost. In another emotional scene, an Operation Iraqi Freedom servicemember presents him with his own combat infantryman’s badge after learning that the veteran had lost and never recovered his own medal.The WWII veteran’s daughter said the entire experience was unforgettable. “It was phenomenal, the joy that it brought him,” she said.The Letters Home project plans to develop a television documentary series that will air in 2017. American Legion Auxiliary members are playing a role in the series’ journey by researching ancestry and hosting memorabilia-veteran and family member reunions. Learn more about Letters Home.