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Task force urges review of minorities' World War I valor awards

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With American Legion support, a group of volunteers is proposing the first-ever review of World War I veterans who may have been denied a Medal of Honor due to racial or ethnic discrimination.

Established by the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission, the Valor Medals Review Task Force is starting with the records of approximately 70 African-American soldiers -- in particular, those worthy of the nation's highest military award who may have been downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross or received a French Croix de Guerre with palm.

"We're not going in with any number in mind," says Jeffrey Sammons, professor of history at New York University and co-author of "Harlem's Rattlers and the Great War: The Undaunted 369th Regiment and the African American Quest for Equality."

"We want this to be as unbiased and apolitical as possible, and to let the evidence lead us where it may."

The U.S. military conducted reviews of valor awards for minority veterans of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and all subsequent conflicts, but not those who served in World War I. The posthumous awarding of Medals of Honor to Cpl. Freddie Stowers in 1991 and Sgt. Henry Johnson in 2015 set a precedent for challenging the postwar review conducted in 1919, which resulted in zero Medal of Honor awards for black veterans and few for other minorities.

At its 100th National Convention in Minneapolis in August, The American Legion passed Resolution No. 109, which calls for legislation lifting statutes of limitation and other obstacles that may impede proper review of minority veterans' World War I records that support consideration for a Medal of Honor.

The initiative can be traced to a lecture given by Sammons at Park University in Missouri, home of the George S. Robb Centre for the Study of the Great War. Two years ago, Timothy Westcott, the center's director, invited Sammons to speak on Robb, a white officer with the 369th Regiment and 1912 Park University alum who received a Medal of Honor for leading an assault near Sechault, France, while severely wounded.

While examining Robb's personnel records and a Medal of Honor index sheet, Sammons discovered that Sgt. William Butler of Salisbury, Md., of the 369th was nominated for the award the same day as Robb. In fact, Robb had praised Butler for his heroism on Aug. 14, 1918, when he saved his commanding officer and other men from Germans who had raided their trench. Upon his return to the United States, Butler was cheered by a crowd of 5,000 at New York's City College.

As a history consultant to the World War One Centennial Commission, Sammons mentioned the case for Butler to be considered for a Medal of Honor, as well as Burton Holmes of Clemson, S.C. A private with the 371st Infantry Regiment, Holmes posthumously received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in France on Sept. 28, 1918. Badly wounded and with his rifle out of commission, Holmes took up another in the face of heavy German machine-gun and shell fire, and was killed.

Sammons is advocating for a broader effort -- one that goes beyond localized, individual campaigns to award a Medal of Honor to this person or that.

"I said, 'This is not right, to kind of cherry-pick our favorites,'" Sammons says. "Having done a book on the 369th, Butler is right there for me. But there has never been a systematic review of valor medals for African-Americans in World War I, like the Shaw University study for World War II (1994-1997), which recommended 11 cases, of which seven received Medals of Honor."

When he suggested such a review for black veterans of World War I, the commission agreed. It formed a task force that includes Sammons, Westcott, two retired major generals, a Medal of Honor historian and a supporting group of researchers.

Under Westcott's direction, Park University will do a "deep dive" into archival and genealogical documentation on each African-American who received the Distinguished Service Cross, Croix de Guerre or Medaille Militaire. He anticipates the project will run three to five years.

"We know there will be a limited few who will warrant forwarding to the appropriate agencies (for consideration for a Medal of Honor), but each of these individuals has a story to tell," Westcott says. "We are going to digitize everything we find so it's available to communities and family members who may never have known about them otherwise."

A Marine Corps veteran and member of American Legion Post 318 in Parkville, Mo., Westcott says it's important the nation does its due diligence in regard to minorities who served with valor in the Great War -- some of whom made the ultimate sacrifice.

"The military has at times been a leader in social change," he says. "This project should hopefully continue that long tradition of righting a possible wrong."

Dwight Mears is a retired Army major and former history professor at the U.S. Military Academy. He's also the author of "The Medal of Honor: The Evolution of America's Highest Military Decoration," a definitive treatment of the award's complicated -- and at times contradictory -- history. Well-versed in the statutes and policies behind the medal, Mears will provide guidance on recommending which awards should be upgraded and legal models on cases where there may not be direct evidence of discrimination.

Until the 1990s, not a single African-American had earned a modern Medal of Honor. That seems statistically unlikely if you compare that to the numbers who were in combat, and the people most aware of that were African-Americans, Mears says.

"They assumed that outcome could not possibly have come about without some sort of discrimination, because in those conflicts they were treated abysmally," he adds. "It wasn't like any of them would say they were treated the same as whites. There's pretty much a historical consensus about that. So the African-American community had already formed an opinion going back decades that the Medal of Honor had become tainted by discrimination.

"Medals don't have a lot of value if you don't award them equitably. They're just trinkets you put on your uniform. And if you tarnish what that medal means to an entire segment of the nation, you significantly dilute the meaning of that decoration."

The task force will look at the records of other minority veterans, too, but is currently focused on African-Americans because of the legal structure of segregation at the time, Mears says. Discrimination as a matter of law means a stronger presumption that their awards were tainted by discrimination than other ethnicities.

"If this case can be made in a way that's scholarly and coherent, it ought to be done," he says. "That's the only thing that will repair the meaning and image of this decoration among at least that demographic and possibly others. If you don't, you're basically going to have to argue that either you're wrong about the discrimination or that the discrimination is not significant enough to disturb the status quo.

"I didn't know enough years ago to know one way or the other and would not have presumed either way. But now that I've looked at the evidence, I'm convinced that discrimination probably did taint a number of these cases."

The Valor Medals Review Task Force had an early success this year with the introduction of a bill by Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., calling for the Congressional Gold Medal to be awarded to the "Hello Girls" female switchboard operators of World War I -- also supported by an American Legion resolution.

Click here for more information about the World War I Valor Medals Review Task Force, including how to volunteer as a researcher or support the task force in other ways.

Anyone with information about African-American World War I veterans who received the Distinguished Service Cross or Croix de Guerre with palm, or who were recommended for a Medal of Honor but did not receive it, is requested to contact Zack Austin at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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American Legion's CWF awards $766,761 in grants for 2019

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In its 64th year, The American Legion's Child Welfare Foundation has awarded $766,761 to 24 nonprofits. These grants, determined during the annual meeting of the board of directors in Indianapolis on Oct. 14, have been awarded to support youth-serving projects that seek to enhance the lives of children by addressing their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs.

The following are the CWF grants awarded for 2019:

American Printing House for the Blind of Louisville, Ky., was awarded $21,029 for its project, “Braille Tales: Sharing the Joy of Reading.” This grant will provide Braille Tales books to 2,500 visually impaired children throughout the country.

Building Better Days of Edgewater, Md., was awarded $10,000 for its project, “Power of Play.” This project provides pediatric patients with a building toy to take their mind off of treatments. The American Legion Auxiliary supports this grant.

Children’s Hospital and Medical Center Foundation of Omaha, Neb., was awarded $12,000 for its project, “Safe Sleep Education Program.” This project will fund Halo Sleep Sacks to more than 1,500 hospitals in North America.

Children’s Organ Transplant Association of Bloomington, Ind., was awarded $6,000 for its project, “The American Legion Family Friendly Fundraising Initiative.” This project will create The American Legion Family Friendly Fundraising Guide online to support COTA families and local post activities throughout the nation.

Families Helping Families NOLA of New Orleans was awarded $10,000 for its project, “Computer Coding for young people with Autism.” This project will provide success for youth with autism.

Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home of Boys Town, Neb., was awarded $35,000 for its project, “Boys Town National Hotline: suicide prevention and mental health outreach.” This project will fund 18 weeks of online outreach in 2019 for the Boys Town Hotline.

Gift of Adoption of Techny, Ill., was awarded $25,000 for its project, “Adoption Support for Vulnerable Children.” This project will fund the final needs to complete the adoption of vulnerable children in the United States, giving them permanent families and the chance to thrive.

Gulf Coast Council – Boy Scouts of Pensacola, Fla., was awarded $7,000 for its project, “Rebuilding the Adventure for Generations to Come - Youth Camping Program.” This project will sponsor a handicap water lift for Scouts summer camping program.

John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital of St. Petersburg, Fla., was awarded $25,200 for its project, “Pragmatic Acquisition of Language Skills, P.A.L.S. - A therapeutic Social Skills Group.” This project will provide a program for small group instruction of students on the high-end autism spectrum who have near-normal to above-average verbal and nonverbal skills.

Mercy Medical Angels (MMA) of Virginia Beach, Va., was awarded $51,000 for its project, “Angel Wings and Wheels for Children.” This project will maintain MMA's website to more effectively promote its services for children and to promote its MayDay4KIDS annual campaign to raise funds.

National Autism Association of Portsmouth, R.I., was awarded $58,408 for its project, “Big Red Safety Box.” This project will fund Big Red Safety Boxes designed to educate, raise awareness and provide tangible tools that may assist in preventing and responding to dangerous wandering-related incidents in the autism community.

Organization for Autism Research of Arlington, Va., was awarded $14,250 for its project, “A Parent's Guide to Research: 2019 Outreach.” This project will print and distribute the revised resource.

Our Military Kids of McLean, Va., was awarded $53,905 for its project, “Empowering a Generation of Military Kids.” This project will fun award packets, publish their quarterly newsletter and annual impact report, update the program website, and produce a benefits video.

Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation of Asheville, N.C., was awarded $15,500 for its project, “The Starfolio Resource Notebook for Families of Children with Brain Cancer.” This project will provide a free resource notebook designed to help families of newly diagnosed patients partner with their child's health care team and organize medical information during treatment.

St. Vincent Hospital Foundation of Indianapolis was awarded $6,714 for its project, “Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincent Healing Arts Program.” This project will fund the Healing Arts Program and services that are offered to any child hospitalized at Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincent.

The American Legion National Headquarters of Indianapolis was awarded $51,000 for its project “2019 American Legion National Youth Programs Scholarships.” This grant will provide academic scholarships to the following youth programs: Boys Nation, Junior Shooting Sports, Baseball and Eagle Scout of the Year.

The American Legion National Headquarters of Indianapolis was awarded $75,000 for its project “The American Legion Temporary Financial Assistance Program-2019.” This grant will provide temporary financial assistance to children of veterans in need of shelter, food, utilities and clothing.

The American Legion National Headquarters of Indianapolis was awarded $138,000 for its project “The American Legion National Oratorical Contest-2019.” This grant will provide scholarships for youth competing in the 2019 American Legion Oratorical Contest.

The Common Strand Foundation of Dumfries, Va., was awarded $28,500 for its project “Children of PTSD Victims.” This grant will fund a website with kid-friendly downloadable reference material to help children cope with their situation and create a more balanced and nurturing home environment.

The Eight and Forty Foundation of Lake Dallas, Texas, was awarded $15,000 for its project “Breath Better Today for a Healthier Future.” This grant will fund 300 children (with asthma, allergies or cystic fibrosis) the cost of breathing treatment, equipment or medication.

ThinkFirst Foundation of Naperville, Ill., was awarded $13,380 for its project, “Protecting Babies from Injury.” This grant will produce five brochures, identification cards and CellSlip pouches to new parents that cover a host of injuries that could cause death or disability.

Too Small to Fail of New York was awarded $50,000 for its project, “Increasing Access to Early Language Development Resources through Diaper Banks.” This grant will add 10 additional diaper banks in especially high-need communities with a focus on agencies that serve military and veteran families.

Truth in Nature of Vila Rica, Ga., was awarded $20,000 for its project, “Truth in Nature Program Expansion.” This grant will fund the opening of new chapters of outdoor Christian ministries for boys from fatherless and single parent homes in the following states: Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Michigan.

United Through Reading of San Diego was awarded $24,875 for its project, “United Through Reading App Book Sponsorship.” This grant will fund books for 5,000 military children.

 


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Impact of Legion’s work produces results for veterans waiting years for answers

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The Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA) the week of Oct. 8 began working appeals submitted through the Rapid Appeals Modernization Program (RAMP). Designed to streamline the appeals process, RAMP is part of VA’s Appeals Modernization Program. RAMP allows veterans to seek faster resolution when she or he appeals the decision of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) on a disability compensation claim.

RAMP is brought into effect under the bipartisan Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017, which was advocated for by the American Legion and ultimately signed into law at the American Legion’s 99th National Convention held in Reno, Nev.

“To fulfill our patriotic duties, we must take care of our great veterans,” President Trump told the convention audience. “One year ago at this gathering, I promised you that I would make it my priority to fix the broken VA system and deliver to our veterans the care they so richly deserve.”

RAMP provides veterans with the opportunity to choose one of three lanes that best fits her or his needs. The lanes include:

  • Higher Level Review at the office of original jurisdiction

  • Supplemental Claim with the office of original jurisdiction

  • Appeal to the Board

The announcement of BVA beginning to work RAMP appeals comes on the heels of VA’s announcement they adjudicated 81,000 appeals decisions of disability benefits in fiscal year 2018 — 28,000 more than the previous year — shrinking the backlog of approximately 470,000 pending appeals.

“The Board’s historic achievement delivering results to veterans and their families reflects VA’s hard work and commitment to getting it right for our veterans under the leadership of President Trump,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “Together, we have achieved significant results for our nation’s veterans, as each of the more than 81,000 decisions produced by the Board can make a real difference in their lives and for their families.”

The VA is working toward full implementation of the Appeals Modernization Act, which is scheduled to go into effect in February 2019.


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American Legion moves to open up membership eligibility

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Membership eligibility in The American Legion is determined by Congress through the establishment of specific dates of declared hostilities in which U.S. military personnel were activated. Since its founding in 1919, membership in The American Legion has been open to veterans of World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Lebanon/Grenada, Panama and Gulf War/War on Terrorism.

There are at least 12 known combat operations that required an activated military personnel, such as the Cold War, Libyan Conflict and Persian Gulf Conflicts, and resulted in about 1,600 U.S. military men and women casualties. However, because these operations are unrecognized by the U.S. government as a period of war, those who served during these timeframes are not eligible for membership in The American Legion.

The American Legion’s National Executive Committee passed a resolution during its annual Fall Meetings in Indianapolis Oct. 17 to change that.

Resolution No. 1, "Unrecognized armed hostilities recognition," calls on Congress to declare that the United States has been continuously engaged in a state of war from December 7, 1941 to present, and for Congress to direct the Department of Veterans Affairs to qualify a wartime veteran as any military service personnel who served honorably under Title 10 for at least one day from December 7, 1941 to present.

Following the passing of Resolution No. 1, the NEC adopted Resolution No. 2, "Unrecognized armed hostilities membership date change," which will change membership dates for The American Legion. This resolution will only be put in motion once the actions of Resolution No. 1 are approved by Congress. Once approved, membership in The American Legion will be open to the following war periods: April 6, 1917 to Nov. 11, 1918, and Dec. 7, 1941 to the date of cessation of armed hostilities as determined by the U.S. government.

The American Legion believes that membership in the organization should be extended to all U.S. military personnel who served on active duty during the hostile events that are not seen as a period of war.

"For many years it seems as if hundreds of veterans – many of them Legionnaires – have asked us to open up eligibility for Cold War veterans, who fall between our current war eras," American Legion National Commander Brett Reistad said. "We are not there yet, but Resolutions 1 and 2 represent significant moves in that direction."


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Recovery from Hurricane Michael will be a long, slow process

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The recovery effort in the Florida panhandle in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael will be a “long haul,” Stephen Shuga said.

The past commander of the Department of Florida is handling logistics for The American Legion’s relief efforts in the state after overseeing relief efforts following Hurricane Irma during his term as department commander last year.

Thursday morning, eight days after Michael made landfall near Mexico Beach, Shuga was on his way to Perry, Fla., to meet the rest of the Florida American Legion Hurricane Disaster Relief Team to load up supplies and begin supporting Legion posts and their communities in outlying areas directly affected by Hurricane Michael.

“What we’re attempting to do on this trip is to scout out locations for future points of distribution,” Shuga said.

He noted that it will be some time before they’re able to get into the areas most devastated by Michael; there’s still a curfew in Mexico Beach and many areas are still without power.

“The grid’s just destroyed,” he said. “… This is going to be a long activity, we need to pace ourselves.”

Still, Legion Family across the nation are reaching out to help those affected by Michael, and those still dealing with the aftermath of last month’s Hurricane Florence.

The Department of Florida has begun collecting donations from their website and many posts throughout the state have begun collecting relief supplies, Florida Assistant Adjutant Bruce Comer said. And he noted that a post in Ohio has committed to moving supplies their way once collection points have been set up.

Shuga added that Legion Family in Maine, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have also offered support. He said the major needs right now include water, insect repellent, canned foods, and tarps.

“When it comes down to it in a couple of months, the need will shift to building supplies, mattresses and bedding,” he said.

In McDonough, Ga., Post 516 Commander Alton Head helped organize a collection of bottled water to send to North Carolina, where they’re still dealing with flooding after Florence, which was exacerbated when Michael moved through the state as a tropical storm. As Head told WGCL-TV, “They said they’re still two feet underwater, and this last hurricane kind of put some more on them.”

The tractor trailer filled with bottled water left this week from McDonough, headed to Fayetteville, N.C.

In Spring Lake, north of Fayetteville, Post 230 is renovating for a second time after a hurricane. Hurricane Matthew in October 2016 flooded the post, and floodwaters from Hurricane Florence have again forced the need for repairs. Post Adjutant Mark Erskine told the Fayetteville Observer, “Some members had the attitude initially to just give up, but I said ‘No we can’t do that. We’ve started from scratch before and can build up.”

While Virginia and South Carolina have dealt with flooding after the hurricanes, departments in those states haven’t yet received requests for National Emergency Fund (NEF) assistance.

The National Emergency Fund is available for American Legion and Sons of The American Legion members who have been impacted by #HurricaneMichael, as well as Legion posts. The NEF provides up to $3,000 for Legion and SAL members with an active membership who have been displaced due to damages to their primary residence, and up to $10,000 for posts that have been damaged by a natural disaster and whose programs and activities within the community are impacted. To apply for an NEF grant, please visit www.legion.org/emergency.


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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.