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Department Spotlight: Hawaii fights to save World War I memorial

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The stately Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium has a rich history.

During World War II, it was used as training for servicemembers. Generations of Hawaiian children learned how to swim there. In August 1927, Olympic swimming gold medalist Duke Kahanamoku celebrated its opening by taking the first official swim.

“Our World War I memorial is a living memorial to honor the 101 Hawaiians who perished during the first world war and all of the other volunteers who helped in that effort,” said Michael Souice, department commander for Hawaii. “The American Legion was instrumental in getting that monument built. The Legion was young at that time and it got behind the concept of a living memorial. They put on the dedication of the memorial.”

The memorial is built in 1920s style with an arch stretching skyward, looking over the Pacific Ocean. Inside the now padlocked gates, bleachers surround an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

But now the memorial is in dire need of repair and support. Otherwise it may be torn down, taking with it a community memorial honoring Hawaiians who supported the United States, decades before the island achieved statehood.

When the salt-water pool was opened in the 1920s, the technology did not allow for the water to be changed out. In time, the salt-water damaged the pool, making it a public-safety issue, Souice said, noting that it closed in the 1970s.

In the 1990s, the city and county budgeted $11 million to restore and reopen the monument. The offices, bleachers and restrooms were restored but the pool was still unusable.

In 2013, the city and state forged a plan to demolish the pool and move the arches inland, which drew outrage from The American Legion, other veterans groups as well as preservationists who wanted to see the structure, which has been declared a National Treasure, restored.

The state Historic Preservation Division’s rules require that all viable alternatives must be considered before the structure will be taken down.

Souice has been committed to saving the monument. He wrote a resolution calling for the “full restoration of our World War I monument” that was passed unanimously at the department convention. In 2014, the National Executive Committee approved Resolution 18, which called for “full restoration of the Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial to its original condition and location to honor those servicemembers lost and injured during World War One.”

As department commander, Souice has worked with preservationists on saving the memorial. “As an American Legion Rider, we ride out to the memorial on Memorial Day and Veterans Day to make a statement about the memorial. We get 80 to 100 motorcycle riders to come out and express our support of restoring the memorial.”

Right now, an environmental impact study is underway, as well as other discussions about how to handle the memorial. There’s just one acceptable solution for the Department of Hawaii.

“The monument needs to be fully restored,” Souice said. “The technology exists today to make the salt-water pool that viable and let the people of Hawaii use this living memorial as it was meant.”

Souice vows that he and the department will keep pushing to salvage the memorial.

“As a veteran, we need to honor the veterans that came before us,” said Souice, a Navy veteran. “It’s a shame to allow such a monument to be in such disrepair in the first place. I’d love to swim in it someday. And I’d love for the children of Hawaii to swim in it.”

 


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Legion program alum crowned Miss Vermont

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A banner hangs inside Middlebury Union High School announcing that the three graduated Connor sisters are state champions for The American Legion Department of Vermont’s Oratorical Contest. All sponsored by Post 27, the three girls – Samantha (30), Brooke (28) and Erin (22) – also claimed a spot in the National Oratorical Contest in Indianapolis during their high school years, where Brooke earned a third-place finish in the 2010 competition and Erin was one of nine competitors who advanced to the semifinal round in 2013.

The Oratorical program has continued to play a role in Erin’s life past high school – the public speaking, diction and poise she learned from the program helped in her efforts of recently being crowned Miss Vermont.

“I’m still on cloud nine (from the win),” said Erin, an Auxiliary Unit 27 member who has her pilot's license and is a recent graduate from the University of Vermont.

Prior to her crowning achievement – one that she has been working toward for three years – Erin helped judge the Department of Vermont’s 2017 Oratorical Contest and coached participants on their public speaking skills.

“I love The American Legion’s Oratorical program because I’m a true believer in education and it educates about your rights, voting, and duties one can do as a citizen, and how it’s important to get involved in your communities,” Erin said. “I love that aspect of the program because it really teaches our youth to get involved.”

Erin is currently preparing for the Miss America competition in September by training at the gym, practicing public speaking and interview skills, making public appearances, and volunteering at the Vermont Children’s Hospital. “I’m doing my best to prepare because I want to make a big splash at Miss America,” she said.

Erin recently spoke with The American Legion about her participation in the Oratorical Contest and how it prepared her for winning the Miss Vermont title.

The American Legion: What did you like about the Oratorical Contest that kept you involved?

Erin Connor: (The Oratorical Contest) has been a part of my family for 15 or 16 years, whether it’s been competing, judging or just being there in the audience. It’s such a great program and it gives you so many scholarships.

And I really like the aspect that it challenged me to get up in front of people and speak. Until I participated in the Oratorical program I didn’t know everything about the Constitution. I didn’t know a lot about our history, the bill of rights or the amendments … it really taught me everything I needed to know about the Constitution, our history and our founding. We live in this great nation but a lot of people can’t even pass the citizenship test. I can do it with flying colors and I really attribute that to the Oratorical program.

What was the most challenging part of the program?

Connor: Getting up in front of people and having a speech memorized. I started working on my speeches in the summer even though the contest wasn’t until January because I wanted to make sure I had everything down. I started my research really early on and I started out with a 20-page paper and narrowed it down to the eight to 10-minute mark. Then I started memorizing it and putting in my fluctuation of my voice and what I was going to do with my hands so it really taught me discipline because I started early on.

How has the Oratorical Contest helped with your poise and diction during beauty competitions?

Connor: During my competitions for the Miss Vermont title, there has been a private interview, swimsuit, talent, evening gown and onstage questions. Interview and onstage questions tend to be one of the hardest areas because you’re public speaking and you need to be quick on your feet and articulate your words very eloquently. And I really believe that I was able to do that because of the Oratorical program; I wasn’t afraid to get up in front of people and talk or answer a question. I felt prepared and I believe that was because I practiced that public speaking for years doing Oratorical.

What is your platform on as you prepare for the Miss America competition?

Connor: It’s called Tailwinds: Training a new generation of women scientist. I really focus on encouraging young women into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field. It’s really important that we get women involved, specifically in aviation because that’s where my expertise is. So I go around to schools and I talk about my journey and what women can do to get into this field. We need more women into the STEM field, specifically engineering and aviation, because we are going to get amazing results in research, medicine and technology. So I really encourage young women to get involved in those fields.

Why do you feel it’s important for high school youth to participate in the Legion’s Oratorical Contest?

Connor: We live in a technology-driven society so I really want people to get back to the basics of how our country was formed. And it was formed because these men risked their lives to make a structure of our country and that living document – because it is a living document – is still very relevant in today’s society. We still need to take time and honor these people who made our country as great as it is.

I’m a big supporter of this competition … I always will be. It’s great that our future generations are still getting involved to learn how about how our nation was created and I love that about it.


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Democracy's doldrums

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The 2017 Freedom House report on the state of freedom and democracy in the world paints a grim picture. “A total of 67 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2016, compared with 36 that registered gains ... the 11th consecutive year in which declines outnumbered improvements,” Freedom House reports.

Equally worrisome: “While in past years the declines in freedom were generally concentrated among autocracies and dictatorships that simply went from bad to worse, in 2016 it was established democracies – countries rated Free in the report’s ranking system – that dominated the list of countries suffering setbacks.”

Before discussing how to reverse this trend, let’s consider some possible reasons why it’s happening.

Expectations

Is representative democracy somehow less appealing today than in the past? That seems unlikely. Representative democracy may be imperfect, but when given a chance to choose how they will be governed, people choose some sort of representative-democratic system. As Churchill put it, "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

That said, established democracies are today facing two internal challenges. First, by promising in the post-World War II era to do increasingly more for their citizens, established democracies have become responsible for more – and are held responsible for more. This creates a problem. After all, if government doesn’t try to do too much, how well or poorly it functions is of little consequence. But when government is the center of things, the engine of society, the deliverer of services and benefits – as it is today in many countries – then when it doesn’t deliver, people blame their government.

Second, today’s on-demand, narrowcast technologies streaming to us at light speed condition us for instant answers, instant gratification and instant solutions. But representative government is not designed to deliver instant solutions. Adlai Stevenson was right when he observed that representative democracy “depends upon giving ideas and principles and policies a chance to fight it out.”

Policies and politicians need time to succeed or fail. However, people today are less patient with everything – including government – than they used to be. The average person’s attention span has fallen in recent years from 12 minutes to five minutes. It seems new technologies are rewiring us to have shorter attention spans, to become less patient and to be more impulsive. As historian Neal Gabler argues, this technology-driven impatience “creates expectations that the political system cannot possibly meet.”

Strong Men

Do the trends described above put liberal democracies at a disadvantage vis-à-vis illiberal democracies and autocracies?

Liberal democracies are characterized by majority rule with minority rights, institutional limits on government power, the rule of law and individual rights. This helps ensure freedom, but it can be inefficient.

Illiberal democracies, on the other hand, are characterized by strongmen who win democratic elections but then use their power to eliminate checks on their authority. Unchecked by the rule of law, such regimes drift into what Tocqueville called “the despotism of the majority,” demagoguery and ultimately cult-of-personality rule.

Not only are these regimes consolidating power inside their borders; some, like Russia, are using sophisticated disinformation campaigns to undermine support for liberal democratic systems beyond their borders. Freedom House reports that Russia has “deepened its interference in elections in established democracies through ... theft and publication of the internal documents of mainstream parties and candidates, and the aggressive dissemination of fake news and propaganda.”

Russia’s goal is to undermine faith in liberal democratic systems, and it may be succeeding.

Uncertain Beacon

Has America’s recent phase of retrenchment played a role? It’s difficult not to connect the dots.

Just 22 percent of Americans say the United States should “promote democracy and freedom in other countries”cdown from 70 percent in 2005.

Reflecting the national mood, President Barack Obama focused on “nation-building here at home.” He mustered only muted reactions when Iran’s democracy movement came under assault; left proto-democracies in Iraq, Libya and Ukraine to fend for themselves; and, with the help of the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration, shrank the reach, role and resources of democracy’s greatest defender: the U.S. military.

President Donald Trump promises much of the same, albeit in a roundabout way. In a surprising echo of Obama, Trump argues, “We have to build our own nation.” He endorses an “America First” foreign policy that evokes pre-World War II isolationism, and he described “trying to topple various people” – we can infer he was talking about dictators in Iraq and Libya – as “a tremendous disservice to humanity.”

It stands to reason that when the main engine of democracy pulls back from the world, the momentum for democratic government would decrease accordingly. But don’t take my word for it. “After eight years as president,” Freedom House concludes, “Obama left office with America’s global presence reduced and its role as a beacon of world freedom less certain.” Trump, Freedom House worries, could prolong democracy’s doldrums by pursuing “a foreign policy divorced from America’s traditional strategic commitments to democracy, human rights and the rules-based international order that it helped to construct beginning in 1945.”

Obama and Trump may be in tune with a majority of the country, but it seems much of the country forgets that democracy-promotion has been a hallmark of U.S. foreign policy for many decades.

A century ago, President Woodrow Wilson said America would “fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts – for democracy…the rights and liberties of small nations.” Wilson believed that a world teetering between dictatorships and democracies was inherently dangerous for America. Thus, when he talked about making the world “safe for democracy,” he was talking about building a safer world for the United States.

President Franklin Roosevelt argued, “Freedom of person and security of property anywhere in the world depend upon the security of the rights and obligations of liberty and justice everywhere in the world.”

President Harry Truman vowed “to help free peoples maintain their free institutions.”

President Dwight Eisenhower rallied Americans to “help our world neighbors protect their freedom and advance their social and economic progress.”

President John Kennedy famously promised America would “bear any burden ... to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

President Ronald Reagan declared, “It is time that we committed ourselves ... to assisting democratic development.”

President Bill Clinton argued, “Enhancing our security, bolstering our economic prosperity and promoting democracy are mutually supportive.”

Echoing Wilson, President George W. Bush concluded, “America has always been less secure when freedom is in retreat” and “more secure when freedom is on the march.”

Solutions

A 2016 Legion resolution expresses “support for democracy and human rights in other countries when such is consistent with U.S. national interests and national power” and calls for “preserving and promoting democracy.”

That phrase “consistent with U.S. national interests and national power” is a prudent one. Perhaps America currently lacks the power – or the will – to promote democracy the way it did in decades past. If so, it should at least preserve democracy by returning to what FDR called “armed defense of democratic existence.”

Today, that means maintaining the military strength to deter rising autocracies (China), revisionist governments (Russia) and rogue regimes (Iran and North Korea). In a time of war, defense spending has fallen from 4.6 percent of GDP in 2009 to 3.1 percent. Our democratic allies need to help the cause. Twenty-three of NATO’s 28 members spend less than 2 percent of GDP on defense.

“Defense of democratic existence” means reassuring fellow democracies, in FDR’s words, that “Americans are vitally concerned in your defense of freedom. We are putting forth our energies, our resources and our organizing powers to give you the strength to regain and maintain a free world.” Today, that translates into arms (rather than MREs) for democratic Ukraine, direct military aid for the democratic Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, and defensive weapons delivered on time and as promised to democratic Taiwan.

“Defense of democratic existence” means we must re-join the battle of ideas. The U.S. Information Agency (USIA), which countered Moscow’s propaganda during the Cold War, was shut down in 1999. The Obama administration announced plans in 2011 to end Voice of America broadcasts in Mandarin and Cantonese, even as China was pouring billions into overseas propaganda and launching 60 U.S. affiliates of its state-run TV network. Recent reports suggest Washington is “planning to cut funding for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.”

Faced with a similar time of testing for democracy, Reagan didn’t cut funding for agencies committed to promoting free government. Instead, he helped create the National Endowment for Democracy “to foster the infrastructure of democracy.” In a similar way, perhaps it’s time for the world’s foremost groupings of democratic nations – the G-7, European Union, NATO and its partners in Israel, Japan, South Korea and Australia – to create a pool of resources to reinforce the infrastructure of democracy, expose Moscow’s meddling, and help democracies under assault preserve the integrity of their political institutions.

Toward that end, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. European Command and NATO, urges Washington to “bring the information aspects of our national power more fully to bear on Russia, both to amplify our narrative and to draw attention to Russia’s manipulative, coercive and malign activities.” He recommends strengthening and unleashing the Russian Information Group (a joint effort of EUCOM and the State Department) and the Global Engagement Center (a State Department body charged with countering foreign disinformation campaigns). Similarly, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper wants Congress to create “a USIA on steroids.”

Finally, America should support democratic reformers. “A little less détente,” Reagan argued, “and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions.” Washington should offer a platform to human-rights activists, journalists, judges and political dissidents from Russia, Venezuela and even erstwhile ally Turkey; draw attention to China’s laogai prisons, underground churches and Charter08 signatories; and challenge the legitimacy of rogues in Iran and North Korea by cataloguing their crimes in high-profile settings such as the president’s State of the Union and annual UN address.

“Circumstances during the first half of the 20th century had provided physical strength and political authority to dictatorships,” historian John Lewis Gaddis notes. “Why should the second half have been different?” The answer: “a striking shift in the attitude of the United States toward the international system” from focusing inward to “planning a postwar world in which democracy and capitalism would be secure.” That’s what made the second half of the 20th century more conducive to democracy – and less hospitable for dictatorships. The same formula will work in the 21st century.


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GI Film Festival celebrates 11th year

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The GI Film Festival (GIFF) – “where passionate filmmakers, our veterans and those who support them can gather for a few magical days to educate, heal and preserve the legacies of our veterans,” according to its website – will celebrate its 11th year May 24-28 in Washington, D.C.

Three theaters around the city will screen selections by independent filmmakers, a number of whom are veterans themselves. The selections are for, by and about veterans and their families. Prizes will be awarded in the categories of feature, documentary, short film, student film and best international film.

In addition to the screenings, special events are expected such as a congressional reception; Warriors Appreciation Night, which invites active-duty military, wounded warriors and their families to a preview screening of a major summer release; a variety show; and – new this year – PitchFest, where 20 aspiring filmmakers will have two minutes each to pitch film ideas and TV projects to a panel of expert judges, for both recognition and a prize package.

More information on the films, as well as how to get tickets, is available at www.gifilmfestival.com. The American Legion is a Silver Sponsor of GIFF; the festival received the National Commander’s PR Award in 2010.


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NYS Veterans App

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The FREE New York State Veterans App Connects You With Valuable State and Federal Benefits and Services
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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.