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Keeping a powerful Legion voice

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Addressing delegates to The American Legion National Convention Aug. 22 in Reno, Nev., National Commander Charles Schmidt said that while the work of the organization continues to make an important and positive impact on this nation, membership needs to be on the minds of every Legionnaire.

“The reason Congress pays attention to us is because we are large, we are principled and we are altruistic,” Schmidt said. “And while I see no diminishment of our principles and our good works, our voice will get proportionally smaller as our numbers go down.

"And so will our ability to run the programs that benefit so many people and their communities.”

Programs such as American Legion Baseball, Boys State and Nation, Oratoricals, Shooting Sports, Scouting and flag etiquette all will suffer if the Legion’s membership rolls don’t increase.

“Who is going to advocate for veterans, just as the doughboys returning from World War I did when they formed an organization that pledged to leave no American servicemember behind and to ensure that their widows and orphans would receive the compassion and assistance of a grateful nation?” Schmidt asked. “Who is going to lobby Congress, encourage the White House and convince the media that freedom is not free and America must maintain a strong national defense in order to protect our way of life?”

The American Legion has been doing that for 98 years, Schmidt said, thanks in part to Legionnaires at the local level. “You don’t have to be a famous national leader like Harry Colmery or Teddy Roosevelt Jr. to be a legend in your own communities,” he said. “In fact, most of the great work by The American Legion family is performed by unsung heroes – people whose names we don’t know and probably will never know.”

Those Legionnaires volunteer hundreds of thousands of hours at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities, conduct blood drives and facilitate Operation Comfort Warriors grants. Schmidt also pointed to the efforts of American Legion Post 171 in Colorado, which teamed up with the Home Depot Foundation to renovate the home of a 100-percent service-connected disabled veteran – Andrew Smith – and his 8-year-old special needs child. The family had been forced to vacate their home when it was determined uninhabitable, but thanks to the post and others the man and his son were able to move back into it last Father’s Day.

“The American Legion saw a challenge and our family stepped up,” Schmidt said. “Now who is going to fill their shoes and help the many other Andrew Smiths that are out there?”

Schmidt asked Legionnaires to focus both on those serving in National Guard and reserve units, as well as former members. He suggested using MyLegion.org to get a county-by-county list of those who have not renewed their membership in The American Legion.

“Make sure that every one of those former members within your post, district and department receives a personal contact – not just a form letter – from someone who cares,” he said. “Sometimes a phone number is not included in the contact information. If that is the case, Google the information that you do have or call directory assistance for a phone number. But a personal visit works even better. Find out why they left the fold and find a way to fix it. If people feel wanted and appreciated, they will renew.”

Schmidt asked national convention delegates to take what they’ve learned in Reno and take it back him with them.

“Membership determines our ability to implement and execute our Four Pillar programs,” he said. “It also determines our ability to effectively advocate, since numbers matter to Congress, the White House, governors and state legislatures. The numbers in our communities can also make the difference between mayors and city councils supporting American Legion programs or ignoring us.

“I am hopeful that with all of your help we will stop this membership slide.”


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Labor secretary calls for end to unnecessary career barriers

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U.S. Department of Labor Secretary R. Alexander Acosta referenced two statistics to illustrate his point that excessive regulatory barriers exist for employment across the United States. One is that there are now some 6 million job openings in the nation, a record high. The other is that “not long ago, fewer than one in 20 Americans required a license to work. Today, one in four Americans require a license to work. Think about that.”

Speaking before thousands of veterans at the 99th National Convention of The American Legion in Reno, Nev., Tuesday, Acosta said more than 1,100 career fields require a license in one state or others. “Most licenses simply limit competition, bar entry and create a privileged class,” he said. “Veterans and their families are some of the hardest-hit by these licensing requirements.”

He said inconsistent state requirements across the country continue to stand in the way of productive employment for well-trained veterans. “Servicemembers learn important skills in the military. Veterans have a proven ability to lead under pressure and deliver results. These are valuable skills. Yet, when service men and women transition to civilian life, states often fail to recognize the credentials and skills gained while in service to our nation.”

Active-duty spouses are also adversely affected by the inconsistency, he said, frequently moving from state to state due to military assignments and finding that one state’s license won’t be accepted at a different location. “A teacher in one state should not be prohibited from teaching in another simply because they moved in support of our nation,” Acosta said.

He explained that the Trump administration is working with governors to improve the situation but called for a re-examination of licenses and credentials in general. “If licenses are unnecessary, eliminate them. If licenses are needed, streamline them. And if they are honored in one state, honor them in all states. And finally, credit the skills and credentials earned by the men and women in service to their nation.”

The secretary said veterans are especially attractive candidates for apprenticeship programs in a variety of industries, from Wall Street to the construction site. He said the Department of Labor and the Department of Defense are working closely to help military personnel develop skills and earn credentials that can transfer into well-paying jobs.

He also explained that 60 percent of students do not finish degrees within six years of enrolling in college. They mount debt or exhaust GI Bill benefits and come away without a degree that leads to a rewarding career.

“Americans are hard-working,” Acosta said. “Americans are dedicated. Americans, however, need an education system that focuses on the skills required by the modern workplace. Demand-driven education empowers students with the skills demanded by the modern workplace. Apprenticeships are an important part of demand-driven education.”

He said President Trump’s executive order to expand apprenticeships will help students “earn while they learn” and “avoid the burden of student debt.” Those who use apprenticeships have better job prospects and higher starting salaries in general than those who do not, Acosta said, adding that employers with apprenticeship programs know what they’re usually going to get with military-trained candidates. “They see veterans as an untapped pool of incredible talent.”

 


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Legacy Run donations top $1.2 million

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The American Legion Riders came into Reno, Nev., having rode more than 1,400 miles from Dodge City, Kan., and raised more than $555,000 for The American Legion Legacy Scholarship Fund. But the Riders were far from done.

After another successful Legacy Run, the Legion Riders and American Legion departments donated more than $667,000 on The American Legion National Convention floor Aug. 22. That brought this year’s Legacy Run total to a ride record $1,224,653 – the fourth straight year the ride has raised more than $1 million.

The American Legion Department of Minnesota led the way, donating $200,000 on the national convention floor. Other top department donations on Tuesday were the departments of Missouri ($78,241), Wisconsin ($67,627), South Carolina ($67,056) and Ohio ($50,000).

American Legion Post 133 (Millbrook, Ala.) donated $15,133, while the Legion Riders from Stevens-Christian Post 557 in Wintersville, Ohio, contributed $13,500.

“A far-flung motto used by the Legion Riders is ‘Legion first,’” said Legacy Run Chief Road Captain Bob Sussan, who also serves as chairman of the American Legion Riders Advisory Committee. “Many departments have in-state Legacy (Runs) to raise funds for the scholarship. Several years ago The American Legion Riders in the Department of Florida, on their in-state Legacy Run, noticed a sign on the wall. This is the expression on the wall … and many Riders chapters had adopted this saying: ‘For the cause, not for the applause.’”

The six-day Legacy Run, sponsored by USAA, drove through Kansas, Colorado and Utah before finishing up in Reno. More than 200 motorcycles completed the ride.

This year’s ride was dedicated to longtime Chief Road Guard Verlin Abbott, who was killed in a motorcycle accident in Indianapolis a week before the Run left Kansas.

“This year was bittersweet,” Sussan said. “This was Verlin’s ride. He was my best friend, my right hand, and as I feel as though I’ve lost a part of me, he’s gone but never forgotten. He will always ride with us.”

The Legacy Fund provides college money for the children of U.S. military personnel killed on active duty on or after Sept. 11, 2001, as well as children of post-9/11 veterans with a combined VA disability rating of 50 percent or higher. In 12 years, the Legacy Run has now raised more than $8 million.


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Medal of Honor recipient continues to serve

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Medal of Honor recipient and longtime American Legion member Don Ballard continues to serve.

Ballard, who went back to school at age 60 to become a licensed funeral director, encouraged American Legion Family members to educate themselves about end-of-life benefits. “The government doesn’t care about you when you’re alive, and they certainly don’t care about you when you’re dead,” he said Tuesday at the Legion’s general session of the 99th national convention in Reno, Nev.

Ballard said the perception that the government will pay for veterans’ funerals is incorrect. “They will not pay one penny for my funeral, even though I have (the Medal of Honor),” he said. “And they will not pay for your funeral. And they will not pay one penny from anyone killed in the conflict in Afghanistan.”

A few years ago, Ballard created a nonprofit that helps veterans and their family members with limited financial resources with funeral expenses. “We care — it’s our passion — about taking care of veterans,” he said, referring to his wife who helps him.

In addition to educating veterans, Ballard also wants to create a network of funeral directors who will join his project to help veterans with their funeral expenses. Veterans and family members seeking such assistance will need to provide information regarding the need. But Ballard says he will assist those who qualify with burials where they are entitled.

On Tuesday, Ballard assisted National Commander Charles E. Schmidt in presenting the Legion’s Spirit of Service awards to this year’s recipients on stage at the convention.

Spirit of Service recipients included Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Robin Stephens, who thanked the Legion for the award and “for allowing me to become part of this family.”

In 2016, Stephens volunteered more than 624 hours supporting Virginia Beach Medical Services as an EMT saving countless lives by responding to various types of medical emergencies. Stephens has used her qualifications to train and qualify 28 master training specialists. She is a command Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Victim Advocate where she has devoted voluntarily 77 off-duty days on call to assist sexual assault victims.

“I am excited to share this passion for service with past, present and future military members,” she said. “I have gotten to know some of you and been able to learn what The American Legion is truly about.”

Marine Cpl. Justin Ahasteen, another Spirit of Service honoree, provided more than 400 hours of volunteer community service while assigned to Headquarters Marine Corps.

“Hunger, poverty and inequality have plagued our nation,” he said. “But organizations such as The American Legion, Red Cross, Salvation Army, and the willpower of others are able to impact the lives of many and make a difference one action at a time.”

Ballard has had an impact on countless lives, including those he saved when he dove on a hand grenade in Vietnam on May 16, 1968.

“I wear the Medal of Honor for all the guys I served with,” he said. “I wear it especially for all the guys who died that day. I wear it for all the corpsmen out there.”


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Patriotic at an early age

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Neal McCoy has sold more than 6 million albums during his country music career. He’s also donated his time to assisting charities, including creating his own with his wife. And in the past 18 years, he’s been on 15 USO tours, including multiple visits to Iraq and Afghanistan.

And for the past 593 days, McCoy has started his day reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, streaming it on Facebook Live. The master of ceremonies at this year’s American Legion National Convention in Reno, McCoy said his love for his country was developed at a young age by his mother, who was living in the Philippines when she met McCoy’s father – a U.S. Army engineer stationed in Manilla during the Korean War.

McCoy’s mother was the second-oldest of 18 children and was 13 years old when the Japanese occupied the Philippines during World War II.

“Mom was very tough and raised us kids to be tough: not always fighting, but to be tough-minded, tough-spirited,” McCoy said. “Coming from the Philippines and not having all the freedoms that all of us wonderful folk have had in the United States of America, she started teaching us at a young age, ‘You ought to be grateful and respectful and understand what is given you guys the rights to do what you do, the rights to say what you want to say when you want to say it.' She starting instilling in us as children how fortunate we were to be in this country.”

McCoy said it’s important to instill in today’s youth patriotic values. Referencing the Legion’s Spirit of Service Award winners and Youth Champions, McCoy said “It’s nice to see young people that get it early.”

McCoy invited Legionnaires to join him on Facebook every morning to say the Pledge. “It’s become a part of my life, and I’m honored that it has,” he said. “Because of my grandfather in (World War II) and my father serving … because of them stepping up and understanding what it’s going to take to protect the freedoms of this country … I’m fortunate enough to be here with a lot of other patriots in this room.”

Before he left the stage, McCoy was given a Sons of The American Legion application by American Legion National Commander Charles E. Schmidt. McCoy pledged to fill it out and join.


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Did you know?

Military Funeral Honors ceremonies must be scheduled in advance.

The law requires that every eligible veteran receive a military funeral honors ceremony, which includes the folding and presentation of the United States flag and the playing of “taps,” upon the family’s request. This Department of Defense program calls for the funeral director to request military funeral honors on behalf of the veteran’s family.