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The American Legion: A Right To Membership
The United States Congress chartered the American Legion in 1919. Its purpose was to benefit veterans and their families, promote Americanism and serve the greater good of communities nationwide. First welcomed to membership were veterans returning home from the battlefields of Europe. But over the years, Congress amended the Legion’s charter so as to include those who had served in World War II, Korea and more recent conflicts.
Ineligible for American Legion membership, however, remain the many men and women who had answered our nation’s call while American military forces were not actively engaging an enemy of the United States. Serving with valor and distinction, these members of the armed forces have guarded America’s shores and protected the nation’s strategic assets at U.S. military bases across the world. They have been on the front lines of American efforts to mediate conflicts between warring factions in Europe, Asia and Africa. And they, too, have been prime targets for armed aggressors, terrorist attacks and saboteurs. The question is: have these veterans not earned the right to membership in the American Legion as well?
This essay seeks to explore whether the American Legion’s charter should be amended so as to better reflect our nation’s appreciation for those who serve in times of war and peace. Indeed, it is an issue made all the more cogent today: With increasing numbers of young Americans rejecting the armed forces as a career option, recruitment goals are not being met and the military is being forced to lower its entrance requirements. If this trend is not soon reversed, the U.S. military could be perceived as incapable of implementing our nation’s strategic policies abroad -- a perception that can only encourage the most aggressive ambitions of other nations.
A Resource for Veterans
In seeking to determine whether the American Legion should open its doors to non-wartime veterans, we must begin with a look at the organization itself:
its mission, its outreach programs and, above all, the benefits today’s Legion is able to provide for a worldwide membership now approaching three million men and women.
Meeting in Paris some five months after the armistice of November 1918, delegates from combat and service units of the American Expeditionary Force resolved to found an organization that would protect the interests of veterans through the years that followed.
These delegates, who no doubt had witnessed the nation’s failure to benefit Civil War and Spanish-American War veterans -- and who were themselves only months removed from the battlefields of what was even then called the war to end all wars -- had a special concern for the sick and disabled among their number, as well as for the widows and children of their fallen comrades. And their powerful commitment brought about the act of Congress, which established the American Legion in September 1919.
With a framework for service, the new organization quickly moved to find hospitals and other services for World War I veterans. It’s leaders championed the cause of compensation and pensions for the disabled, widows and orphans, then lobbied for a government agency specifically dedicated to veterans’ needs; and their efforts helped to establish the U.S. Veterans Administration in 1930.
In 1944, the Legion played a prominent role in the enactment of a G.I. Bill of Rights for World War II veterans, and later supported similar legislation for veterans of the Korean War. These measures would ultimately make possible college or vocational training for more than 10.5 million veterans, and provide the low-interest loans that would enable an estimated 5.6 million veterans to purchase their own homes.
As the Legion grew in both membership and influence, so, too, did its agenda. Championing the cause of patriotism, it developed educational programs, which sought to promote good citizenship. Legion social and athletic programs for youth had a goal of helping children to realize their full potential. A legislative division worked to make certain the Legion’s voice was heard in Washington. And through its nearly 15,000 local chapters worldwide, the Legion has worked to build and strengthen a sense of community through child welfare programs, educational scholarships, blood drives, crime prevention projects and other
such initiatives. Perhaps most important to veterans, however, are the special benefits which the American Legion has been able to provide its membership.
Ranging from health, financial and employment services to member discounts for travel, moving, insurance and even Internet usage, today’s American Legion benefits America’s war veterans in countless ways, including opportunities for social activity and camaraderie at its local chapters. As such, it is understandable that non-wartime veterans might feel the pain of exclusion.
A Policy Framed By Hope
It is an unhappy fact that policies and legislation often outlive their usefulness. Within the archives of most every state and municipality are enactments dating from the 19th century and even earlier which, when brought to light by some enterprising news hound or researcher, cause people to ask why such laws had not been updated years before. Most often, the response has been simply that nobody saw a need to do so. In much the same way, some would point out that the American Legion’s membership policies are equally archaic and long overdue for revision.
In adopting legislation that was to establish the American Legion and limit its membership to those Americans who had served honorably in World War I, Congress believed the job was done: In their minds, that horrific conflict had truly been a war to end all wars; there would be no need to amend the Legion’s charter because never again would America’s young men and women be called upon to make such a terrible sacrifice. For the next 22 years they were able to applaud this seemingly good judgment. While there were conflicts throughout the world -- from Spain to Ethiopia -- America’ s dismantled war machine had only a small volunteer army and little taste for battle. But the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought a new, even more deadly conflict; and with war’s end in 1945, Congress was forced to amend the Legion’s membership regulations in order to welcome home a new generation of war veterans. However, there was still no thought of opening the Legion’s doors to all the nation’s veterans. If their predecessors in the Congress had been wrong about World War I being the last great conflict, then surely this just concluded war -- brought to an end by the most powerful weapon in all history -- was the long-awaited end to war. That rationale lasted fewer than five years. And Congress was forced to amend the Legion’s membership qualifications following the Korean War, Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Libya, Panama and yet again following Operation Desert Shield.
What do we say to the men and women who helped prepare for any unforeseen war or confrontation, and having fulfilled their military enlistment prior to these actions they are discharged? Thanks for setting the table and training the help, now you can leave?
Opening New Doors to Recognition
Over these past eight decades, the question of whether non-wartime veterans should be eligible for membership in the American Legion may have seemed unimportant. In the years between the Armistice of 1918 and America’s entry into World War II, the nation’s volunteer armed forces needed no inducements beyond the promise of adventure and a paycheck. The same could be said for recruitment efforts in the years just before and after Korea. But with Vietnam and its aftermath, American attitudes toward the military have shifted markedly.
And with the fall of Communism, today’s young Americans have little sense of the need to protect their homeland from possible enemies. Unlike those of an earlier generation who felt electrified by President John F. Kennedy’s call for them to ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country, this new generation is more likely to ask just the opposite. Downgraded in the public mind, today’s armed forces must also recruit at a time when the nation’s economy is offering a range of workforce alternatives promising high-pay and equally substantial benefits.
In seeking to compete for even a small share of America’s best and brightest young people, the military continues to offer larger and larger bonuses, college funds and career-based training opportunities. But armed forces recruitment drives continue to fall short of their goals. Fearing a consequential reduction in manpower, and in an attempt to broaden today’s recruitment pool, the military has made a potentially devastating decision to accept young men and women who lack even a high school diploma. At a time when the conduct of military operations utilizes sophisticated technology and depends more and more upon skilled personnel, this lowering of standards could have tragic results.
America’s military must add to its recruitment arsenal of financial bonuses and other benefits the motivating force of pride and recognition -- a sense that our nation appreciates such service. It is a motivation shared by generations of those who have served in years past; it must now be extended to those we are calling upon to defend America’s interests in years to come. And America must give tomorrow’s soldiers and sailors, airmen and Marines a reason to feel proud and appreciated. By extending membership in the American Legion to all such men and women who will put their lives on the line in defense of our nation’s cherished goals, Congress can move both to correct an error of past indifference and to strengthen America for the generations ahead.