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Honorary centennial chairman Roosevelt IV reflects on values

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Theodore Roosevelt IV, chairman of The American Legion’s 100th Anniversary Honorary Committee, reflected Saturday on a World War I veteran his grandfather revered: Sgt. William Henry Johnson of the famed 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment, the all-black combat unit known as “Harlem’s Hellfighters.”

Roosevelt IV, whose grandfather Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was a prominent founder of The American Legion, said one of the most important values of the early organization was established to prevent the fate that would eventually befall Johnson, who was wounded 21 times and died just 10 years after the war’s end.

“I suspect that grandfather would not be surprised in the least at the endurance of this organization, founded as it is on a fundamental principle – that a veteran is a veteran,” Roosevelt IV told more than 300 who gathered in St. Louis for the Department of Missouri’s 101st Convention, a weekend-long centennial celebration. “Ted Jr. only saw the soldier, nothing else, because nothing else mattered. Not race, rank or duty station. Not social position, education, money or gender. The only things that mattered then and now were service, comradeship and loyalty. For grandfather and all the founders, this was clear.”

At a time long before desegregation in the U.S. military, Johnson and the Harlem Hellfighters (a unit of which was commanded by another American Legion founder, Hamilton Fish of New York) distinguished themselves on the battlefield. The regiment spent 191 days fighting on the front, including one instance when Johnson and another soldier were on watch in “no man’s land” when the Germans ambushed them. The other soldier was quickly wounded, and Johnson’s rifle jammed. So the South Carolina former train porter, used the butt of his weapon and a knife to kill four enemy attackers and is believed to have held off more than 30, securing his position and protecting his comrade. Johnson’s courage was immediately recognized with the Croix de Guerre avec Palme, France’s highest decoration for valor.

However, said Roosevelt IV: “Our nation failed him. William Johnson only received (the Medal of Honor and Purple Heart) after his death. Even worse, he was badly injured in battle, but the injury never made it into his military records. He had a plate in his foot and could no longer work as a porter as he had done before the war. He died unacknowledged and penniless. TR Jr. came home from World War I, one of the most brutal wars ever fought, and he could not place a period on his service, a period that could leave the returning soldier, such as William Johnson, without comfort and aid.

“He knew that their service demanded more of all of us. It demanded that we remember our veterans and their families with concrete action – concrete action that does not falter, that does not waiver, that is not subject to the whims of politics, that belongs to neither party and to no ambition other than to memory and duty. The American Legion’s founders believed that mission came ahead of party politics.”

The American Legion has continued to fight for fair benefits and treatment of veterans, regardless of race, gender or rank, throughout the last century. Roosevelt IV told of his grandfather’s encounter with Sgt. William Patterson, who was recovering from wounds at an Army hospital in France during the war. Patterson told Roosevelt Jr. that his plan after discharge was to “go home and start a veterans association for the good of the country.”

Sgt. Patterson did not survive the war, but Roosevelt Jr. and his comrades fulfilled his vision by starting The American Legion in 1919, which included the St. Louis Caucus of May 8-10 that year where the Preamble to The American Legion Constitution was written, committees established and filled from every state, and the organization’s priorities came into focus.

“They began with no paid members, no departments or staff, and virtually no money. But they had a purpose – to strengthen our nation after a horrific war. Their focus was entirely on their mission and on the welfare of returning veterans. There was no time or place for personal ambition or grandstanding.”

That initial principle, carried forward over the decades, led to massive American Legion accomplishments from rural communities to urban centers, including advancement of civil rights, democratization of higher education and home ownership, a better-prepared system of defense, healthy programs for young people and, foremost, support for veterans who came home facing readjustment difficulties after wartime service. “A healthy VA for the future must always be a priority for The American Legion, regardless what century it is. But most importantly, we give ourselves this – our association, our comradeship, our devotion to one another.”

All of these actions – from support for needy children to federal accountability for military exposure to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War – have built up what Roosevelt IV explained is “social capital” between veterans and their communities. “Social capital is an extraordinary glue that holds this country together. I believe firmly that The American Legion provides great glue in holding communities together. I believe the role of The American Legion, both in urban America and in rural America, (is) essential. The great French historian Alexis de Tocqueville remarked on the ability of Americans to create associations that get things done. That’s a tremendous aspect of The American Legion, and it’s so important.”

Roosevelt IV said it is vital that The American Legion reach out and engage the post-9/11 generation of veterans to join the organization’s second century. As veterans, he said, “We know the cost of a lack of discipline. We know what it takes to storm a hill or hold a bridge. We know what it takes to get it done. So we did, and so we will continue to do, because we must. We have The American Legion because of the World War I doughboys and doughgirls who came home from war and remembered … their comrades in arms so well that they have shielded, comforted and lifted up more generations than they ever knew. We are the children who most of those soldiers never met. I never met my grandfather. But we are their legacy. It is not just about those bonds to grandfathers, It is about the obligation we must feel to grandsons, even those who we may never meet. Together, we struggle to ensure that a William Henry Johnson will never again be abandoned. Today, we honor our mutual resolve, our comradeship, our loyalty.”

Following his remarks, members of Quentin Roosevelt American Legion Post 1 in St. Louis presented Roosevelt IV, a Vietnam War Navy veteran, a plaque “in recognition of the honorable service of the entire Roosevelt family.”

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Family, fun and camaraderie fulfill Legion post’s vision

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On a warm sunny Saturday in San Diego, young children were enjoying a bounce house. Nearby in the closed-off parking lot, older kids were joyfully racing large tricycles and dodging water balloons. Inside, karaoke tunes were blasting, faces were being painted and cookies were being decorated.

It wasn’t a birthday party. Nor was it a neighborhood festival. It was the first American Legion Family Play Day, held at Post 365 in Vista, Calif.

While kids played and sang, adults mingled and played cornhole with patriotic-inspired beanbags. The day was an example of the vision articulated by Post 365 Commander Steve Miller.

“The Legion is family-oriented anyway,” he said, noting that the post hosts weekly kids karaoke. “We’re trying to do anything we can do enhance the family orientation so anytime that we have the opportunity to get kids in here and young families, that’s a win-win. I want the young families to come in — kids, grandkids — this is a family atmosphere. Why would you not want that? It’s an opportunity to bring the Legion and families together.”

That’s the vision behind the pilot program approved in Resolution 20 by the Legion’s National Executive Committee at the Spring Meetings in May. Other American Legion posts are planning similar events in the coming weeks.

By all indications Post 365 achieved the objective of the resolution: “promote a fun, positive public image and attract a new generation of American Legion Family members through the planning and operation of Family Play Day or Game Night events in their communities.”

Robyn Nolin brought her 11- and 8-year-olds sons to the event.

“It’s family — Legion Family — it’s what we do,” said Nolin, an Army veteran and commander of Post 364 in Santee, about 45 minutes away. “When I became commander, one of my goals was to get community and family to the Legion and get them involved. Most of us veterans have families, especially post 9/11, and as a recruiting mechanism we have to do better at doing family involvement at posts.”

As an example, Nolin said that her post held a flag retirement ceremony recently that was family themed. Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Brownies all participated. “Their families came to the event and many of them don’t have exposure to veterans,” she said. “So this was a way that we could educate them on what The American Legion is all about.”

Such events go beyond a membership tool, she noted. It’s a way to educate the next generation.

“I think kids should have respect for veterans because that has kind of gone out the window,” said Nolin, a fourth-generation military veteran. “I have done the best that I can to educate the youth about those who have served our country. I knew it because that is how I grew up. But other children don’t know it the way that we did. I want my kids to know that not only did Mommy serve but to let their friends know that veterans are a huge part of America.”

The event attracted Brad Sakemi, a post 9/11 Army veteran and member of Indio Post 739.

“The family atmosphere, food, drinks, the kids can have fun and the parents can have fun,” said Sakemi, who attended with his wife and 2-year-old son. “All the children here always take real good care of my son. It’s a family atmosphere. Kids and everyone have fun. It’s a great place to bring kids, a friendly atmosphere, not cliquey.”

When he heard of the concept, Post 365 member Chris Yates did not hesitate to suggest it to Miller.

“Families are a huge part of who we are in the military,” said Yates, who served 20 years in the Marine Corps. “Our wives, our significant others, our kids, make sacrifices so that we can serve, so that we can be away for six months at a time, a year at a time, or just a few nights a week. And why should that change in The American Legion? Any successful American Legion, whether it's at the post level, the district or department level, has an active Auxiliary, has an active Sons of The American Legion and has an active American Legion Riders. You look anywhere, and although each one of those programs or organizations function very well on their own, the success is in those organizations that bring all of them together.”

While Post 365 has a strong track record of fostering family-friendly events, Miller sees the concept being applicable at all posts.

“Take a risk; try some different venues,” he advises. “Are all the ideas going to work? No. Try them and see what works for your post in your community. Reach out and find out from your members what they would like to see in terms of family-oriented stuff. Get input from your membership. There’s no silver bullet. But get engaged, try something and work with your membership, and you’ll find something that works.”

While Post 365 is assessing what worked and what didn’t, one thing is clear. “This won’t be the last one,” Miller said. “We’ll take a look at everything. Did we try to do too much? Should we focus in on the more popular things?”

Yates sees the Legion Family Days continuing, as an extension of the outreach that is already a priority for Post 365.

“At the end of the day, the mission is introducing the community to The American Legion, getting some of the active duty that's in the area to know that we're here, to know that we're a family-oriented organization, and that we have spaces for them to create similar programs on a more regular basis,” he said. “The issue is, can we do more for families? Can we bring more families in? Can we focus on the family so that we're not separated again? We've had enough separation from our families. If we come to the post and have a family fun day, we just enhance life. We enhance who we are and who we love, and we're doing what we do together.”

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73rd annual Boys Nation begins Friday

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The 73rd session of American Legion Boys Nation begins Friday as 100 rising high school seniors arrive in Washington, D.C., to represent their respective states in one of the Legion’s premier youth programs.

The delegates represent 49 states and the District of Columbia. Hawaii is the only state that does not have a current Boys State program, although the state does have a Girls State program sponsored by the American Legion Auxiliary.

The delegates will be assigned to either the Federalist or Nationalist party upon their arrival at Marymount University in Arlington, Va. Over the course of the next week, the young men will conduct party conventions and senate sessions, elect a president and vice president, introduce and vote on bills submitted by their peers, and hear from guest speakers. Activities off campus include a tour of the National Mall, meetings with elected officials from their respective states alongside delegates from American Legion Auxiliary Girls Nation, and dinner at Greenbelt Post 136 in Maryland with special guest American Legion National Commander Brett Reistad.

View the 2019 Boys Nation agenda here, which is subject to change. And follow the young men throughout the week on, which will feature stories, videos and photos highlighting the program, as well as on social media using the hashtag #BoysNation2019.

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Explore a century of enduring policies and programs of The American Legion

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The current policies and programs of The American Legion are based on resolutions passed by the Legion’s national conventions and the National Executive Committee over the last 100 years. After a multi-year effort, the Library and Museum has made available through the Digital Archive all the currently active resolutions from 1919 to present. This amounts to close to 2,000 resolutions that establish and guide the priorities and programs of the Legion.

National resolutions come and go based on The American Legion’s priorities. However, there are several enduring core policies and programs that are still relevant today. These include constitutional changes, the founding of national programs like the National Oratorical Contest, and principles such as law enforcement and tolerance. Historical context and background for the passage of resolutions can be found in the meeting proceedings collection. Members of the American Legion Family and the general public are welcome to explore the policies that guide the direction of the national organization.

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Iowa Legion to ride RAGBRAI wave

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What started a bicycle ride challenge between two writers for the Des Moines News-Register in 1973 has evolved into the oldest, largest and longest recreational bicycle touring event in the nation. Over its 46 years, well over 320,000 riders have participated in the now seven-day event, which traverses Iowa across an average route of 468 miles.

And this July, The American Legion Department of Iowa – and the organization’s 100th anniversary – will be featured prominently in the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, more commonly known as RAGBRAI.

A team of Legionnaires will take part in the July 21-27 ride, while July 22 will be designated as 100 Years of Celebrating The American Legion Day; the day’s route also makes stops in seven communities with active American Legion posts. The Department of Iowa also will have tents and/or booths set up as various stops along the way to provide information about The American Legion and services to veterans.

“We’re going to try to use the ride to raise awareness for what The American Legion does: the services we provide not only to veterans, but to our communities,” Department of Iowa Adjutant John Derner said. “We have always really been a part of RAGBRAI, because every time RAGBRAI comes through one of these little towns, our posts are represented there with food stands or other activities going on. We’ve had that association with them, really, since they began. It’s just a way for them to recognize us not only for our contributions to the RAGRBAI route, but also our contributions for the last 100 years.”

The ride includes participants from all over the country and foreign countries. Because of the event’s popularity, RAGBRAI officials now limit the number of riders who register for the entire week to 8,500, though thousands of others participate in portions of the ride each day. According to RAGBRAI, an estimated 36,000 riders were counted on the road from Perry to Des Moines in 2013.

Iowa Eighth District Commander Carl Anderson, who both rides in and is a ride ambassador for RAGBRAI, brought up with ride officials the potential of doing something in recognition of The American Legion Centennial. Anderson said the first time he participated in RAGBRAI the ride did a dedication to U.S. servicemembers. “I was impressed with it,” he said. “It was from that previous ride that gave me the inspiration to try to connect the RAGBRAI with The American Legion.”

It didn't take much back and forth to come to an agreement. “(RAGBRAI officials) organized a meeting with us, and we essentially showed up at the meeting and at that time they already had their mind made up that they were going to use The American Legion as one of the two charities they recognize this year,” Derner said.

Anderson said the response from RAGBRAI speaks volumes about the reputation of The American Legion. “It recognizes that our servicemembers have done a lot for the country,” he said. “It shows that they recognize The American Legion and the things that we do. And it didn’t take an act of God to try to convince them of that.”

American Legion Past National Commander Dave Rehbein, a life member of American Legion Post 37 in Ames, Iowa, said the organization will have a strong presence throughout the ride.

“Every day on RAGBRAI they have what they call a meeting town and an overnight town. So in those two locations every day we will set up (an American Legion) booth or tent,” Rehbein said. “We’ll have information to distribute. We will also have a service officer in that booth. If somebody wants to talk about a (Department of Veterans Affairs) claim, they can at least have some initial conversation and get hooked up with us.”

Having a service officer present is appropriate, Rehbein said, in part because The American Legion already represents nearly 60 percent of the veterans claims going through the Veterans Benefits Administration’s Des Moines Regional Office – more than any other veterans service organizations combined.

“I think we can use that in those booths to educate people that if you need help with a claim, here’s the people to talk to,” Rehbein said.

An American Legion team also will participate in the ride, an idea Derner said started after an American Legion post – Brian Gienau College Post 738 – was chartered at Hawkeye Community College in 2018. “We have a bunch of young Legionnaires that are members not only of that post, but some surrounding posts … and they had proposed to our department executive committee to form a team for RAGBRAI,” he said. “When we got into the 100th anniversary talks and everything else, it all just kind of fell together.”

Rehbein said The American Legion members who will ride in RAGBRAI “are young, they’re very proud to be Legionnaires, they’ve got a lot of initiative, and they want to share their enthusiasm.”

The team will wear a specially designed jersey that also is available for purchase in both a men's and women's sport cut. The jersey can be worn by any Legionnaire wanting to celebrate and promote The American Legion’s 100th anniversary. The jerseys are on sale until May 22 and are scheduled for shipping to customers by July 12.

“We know that there’s people from all 50 states that ride this thing,” Derner said. “If they want to buy the jerseys and ride in the name of The American Legion, they certainly can.”

Rehbein, chairman of The American Legion 100th Anniversary Observance Committee, said the organization’s high-profile participation in RAGBRAI is a result of previously successful efforts to promote the Legion.

“What we’re seeing out there is that opportunities tend to build on each other,” he said. “We have had some opportunities in the past doing other things. When you get an opportunity and you can execute it well, somebody sees that and you get bigger opportunities. I think that’s part of what drove the RAGBRAI people to us. We didn’t have to convince them.”

And because of that, this year's ride will have an added dimension for Anderson. “There are two loves that I have: The American Legion and cycling,” he said. “Being our centennial year, it does make this a bit more special. Having them recognize us … that really does mean something.”

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Did you know?

A veteran’s family must request a United States flag.

A flag is provided at no cost to drape the casket or accompany the urn of a deceased veteran. Generally, the flag is given to the next of kin. Only one flag may be provided per veteran. Upon the request of the family, an “Application for United States Flag for Burial Purposes” (VA Form 21-2008) must be submitted along with a copy of the veteran’s discharge papers. Flags may be obtained from VA regional offices and most U.S. Post Offices.