The American Legion: Patriots with a Purpose
Rose, Jean Browning, The Saturday Evening Post
Today, some would have you believe that cynicism is in vogue and patriotism out of style. They're wrong. Yankee Doodle lives, and you don't have to go far to find him. Just stop by any American Legion post, and you'll discover do-or-die nephews (and nieces) of Uncle Sam ready to go to bat for Americans anytime, anywhere. These citizen-soldiers are neither uncertain about what they stand for nor shy about declaring it to the world.
Drop in on Banner Day at a local elementary school, talk to a teenager at Boys or Girls State, judge a Legion-sponsored high-school oratorical contest, chat with the American Legion Scout of the Year, watch the real national pastime at a Legion baseball park, or just wave Old Glory the next time Legionnaires parade down Main Street, U.S.A., and you'll see what patriotism and service to community and country look like.
The concepts and values upon which our country is founded are alive and well in these places--and in the hearts and minds of some three million Legionnaires across the land. They cherish the old verities of honor, courage, vigilance, service, sacrifice, and the rule of law. To a Legionnaire, these words are not merely old-fashioned ideals consigned to the neglected pages of outdated history books. They are words to live by.
Strength through Diversity
The men and women of the American Legion come from all age groups, ethnic origins, socioeconomic classes, and political parties. This wellspring of human talent keeps the organization strong and vital. What keeps them united is one immutable common bond: they are all Americans--and proud of it.
"We believe a veteran is a veteran, and benefits and rehabilitation are nonpartisan issues," says E. Roy Stone, Jr., chairman of the South Carolina State Agency of Vocational Rehabilitation, who has served the Legion on the national level for 48 years. He holds firm to the tenet that those who have served our country, often at great personal sacrifice, deserve the nation's appreciation and support.
"If something is good for veterans, the Legion will be for it," Stone says.
In return, the Legion established its mission to serve not only veterans, but also the community, American youth, and the nation. And this self-supporting veterans' organization, which recently celebrated 75 years of service, has raised countless millions to deliver on that promise.
Veterans' Programs for All Americans
Each time the winds of war subside, returning veterans must face the often-difficult adjustment to family and community. Since 1919, the American Legion has done battle on the homefront to provide programs and services to ease veterans' reentry into a peacetime America, a peace secured by their hardships and sacrifices on the battlefield.
Their achievements are impressive. They lobbied for the World War Veteran's Act of 1924, which established, among other things, standards for veteran rehabilitation. Legionnaires launched national campaigns to influence Congress to construct hospitals, provide financial and medical assistance to disabled veterans and their families, set up unemployment services, and establish a federal Veterans Administration.
In Memoriam: Those Who Sacrificed for America
Ever important to the American Legion is the appropriate honor and dignity with which Americans remember the debt this nation owes those who have fallen in battle.
In large measure, credit goes to a special Legion project for beautifying and dignifying the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. When the tomb was being chipped away by souvenir hunters in 1937, the Legion pushed for a 24-hour military guard. In addition, the Legion (and its auxiliary) raised funds for permanent lighting of the tomb.
On November 13, 1982, a memorial was finally dedicated in the nation's capital to honor Vietnam veterans, who had often encountered disrespect and scorn when they returned home from battle in that unpopular war. The American Legion was the largest contributor ($1.2 million) to the project. Jan C. Scruggs, president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, singled out Legionnaires as the major role players in getting the memorial built and financing its construction.
Even military personnel buried abroad are not forgotten. The Legion's Overseas Decoration Trust provides flags and other decorations for graves of GIs buried on foreign soil.
Fighting for Veterans' Unique Health Concerns
Champions of healthcare for veterans, the Legion has labored tirelessly to demand that government acknowledge responsibility and provide medical assistance to veterans suffering from problems acquired directly from military service.
Recently, victims of Agent Orange received much-needed aid when the Legion, along with Columbia University, confirmed the link between the defoliant and disease. The Legion also supported studies that revealed posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to be the underlying cause of many serious readjustment problems affecting veterans of all wars, not just Vietnam. The Legion then persuaded the Veterans Administration to provide treatment, counseling, social services, and employment assistance to PTSD sufferers.
A Legion task force is still campaigning for benefits for veterans suffering from the effects of mustard gas, asbestos, atomic radiation, government experimentation, and the yet-unidentified illness of those who served in the 1991 Gulf War.
The GI Bill: A Work in Progress
But chief among the Legion's accomplishments is the GI Bill of 1994 (updated to help veterans of the Korean, Vietnam, and the Gulf wars).
"In my view, the GI Bill of Rights, passed in 1944, is the most important piece of legislation produced by the Congress in this century," said William J. Crowe, Jr., former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "It was an act initiated, sponsored, and sold by the American Legion," he added.
The program benefited all citizens by educating and training veterans to enter the job market in postwar America. Employed vets paid, rather than drained, taxes from public-assistance programs.
Through Legion-guaranteed home loans, vets reentered the American economy, stimulating the real-estate market and increasing the consumption of household goods, appliances, and everything that goes into making a home and family. These tough, dedicated citizen-soldiers, along with others of the post-World War II generation, have played a leading role in making America into the world superpower that we know today.
Commitment to American Youth
Of late, much has been said about how "it takes a whole village to raise a child" and that we must all take an interest in the health, welfare, and education of our young people. Scholars and politicians alike warn that the younger generation has little understanding of American history or the principles and values that made this country the great republic that it is.
These are not new ideas to Legionnaires. As far back as the 1920s, Legionnaires saw the need to care for and provide direction to the nation's youth, particularly the children of disabled or fallen comrades. They proposed: "The child of every veteran should have a home, health, education, character, and opportunity." And they put their money where their proposition was by including children's programs in a $5 million Veterans' Rehabilitation Endowment Fund.
Building Good Citizens Through Scouting
Even earlier, in 1919, the Legion supported the Boy Scouts. Local posts to date have chartered more than 2,400 units, and hundreds more receive financial assistance and countless volunteer hours. The Legion also awards competitive scholarships annually to Eagle Scouts.
Concern for the physical fitness of America's youth resulted in the formation of American Legion Junior Baseball in 1925. Thomas A. Rumer, author of The American Legion: An Official History, 1919-1989, wrote that an additional impetus for sponsoring the national program came from the director of the Legion's Americanism Commission, Frank C. Cross, who was determined to "fight the seamier aspects of 'professionalism' in amateur sports."
Cross averred that the Legion was "more than a match for avaricious moneychangers who seek to defile the temple of sportsmanship by bartering in amateur sports."
The program has run virtually uninterrupted ever since, claiming among its alumni 32 Hall of Famers, including Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Stan Musial, Yogi Berra, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Palmer, and Reggie Jackson.
Last year, 4,522 teams made up of 16-, 17-, and 18-year-old high-school students from all 50 states and Puerto Rico competed in state tourneys. The 1995 American Legion World Series was held in August in Fargo, North Dakota, with the champions winning a trip to the Major League World Series.
Preparing the Statesmen of the Future
Sixty years ago, the first American Legion Boys State citizenship program convened in Springfield, Illinois. Boys State, which is centered around the study of local and state government, was inaugurated to counter a 1930s Fascist movement organized to win students from Middle America's high schools.
This week-long summer program for qualified young men (the Legion Auxiliary sponsors Girls State) between the junior and senior years in high school trains youth for practical citizenship. Goals include the development of civic pride and an understanding of American traditions and government. Most important are goals "to inculcate a sense of individual obligation to the community, state, and nation" and "to safeguard and transmit to posterity the principles of justice, freedom, and democracy." Outstanding participants from each state travel to Washington, D.C., for Boys Nation, which concentrates on federal government.
Boning Up, Speaking Out
The Legion also sponsors a National Oratorical Contest to develop in high-school students a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Constitution of the United States by having them select and research a phrase of the Constitution that emphasizes duties and obligations of citizens to their government. Other objectives are to develop leadership and to help students learn to think and speak clearly and intelligently. Scholarships totaling $60,000 go to the four finalists.
Need a Lift to College?
The American Legion (in cooperation with National College Services and United Student Aid Funds) annually publishes an assistance package titled Need a Lift? This book, available in most high schools or on an individual basis, offers a comprehensive list of scholarships, grants, and loan opportunities; specific information on many colleges and universities; applications for financial aid; and career-development information.
Taking Good Care of America's Children
The Legion's Child Welfare Foundation and the Commission on Children and Youth wage hard-hitting campaigns to encourage immunization, promote child-safety programs, reduce juvenile delinquency, wipe out physical and sexual abuse of infants and children, and strengthen families. They fund dozens of other organizations that work for the benefit of children (such as the Red Cross, cancer-research programs, and camps for handicapped children). They even underwrite publications such as Living With IBD, a book for children who suffer from Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.
What About the Community as a Whole?
The number and variety of community programs supported by the Legion is limited only by the energy and ingenuity of individual Legionnaires. Each post can implement programs to meet any community need--as long as members raise the money and volunteer the hours necessary to get the job done.
The Legion's National Emergency Fund, along with thousands of volunteers, helps victims of such tragedies as hurricanes in Florida, earthquakes in California, floods in the Midwest, and the recent Oklahoma City bombing. And they will be there when next they're needed.
Long May She Wave
The Stars and Stripes have a special place in the hearts and minds of Legionnaires--and woe be to those who would desecrate it!
"Our Legion comrades ... at that first convention made it clear that they had not carried the American flag abroad to return home and see it degraded in the land of its birth," said former president Harry S Truman in 1959 and quoted in the American Legion magazine in 1994.
While others may remain unclear about their position on a Constitutional amendment to protect the flag from public desecration, the Legion leaves no room for doubt. At its 1994 spring convention, the Legion declared, "There's no turning back from our commitment to the flag." To show they meant business, delegates approved additional funding to the Citizens Flag Alliance to continue the campaign to protect the flag.
As in the past, the American Legion's primary mission is to serve our nation's veterans. But, perhaps more important, the Legion can be counted on to continue serving communities, America's youth, and our great nation as a whole, for the Legion has always remained true to its motto: "For God and Country!"…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The American Legion: Patriots with a Purpose. Contributors: Rose, Jean Browning - Author. Magazine title: The Saturday Evening Post. Volume: 267. Issue: 5 Publication date: September-October 1995. Page number: 52+. © Benjamin Franklin Literary and Medical Society Jan/Feb 2007. COPYRIGHT 1995 Gale Group.
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