The 99th annual American Legion convention wrapped up in Reno last Thursday with the election of its first female national commander and during the week Legionnaires also received updates on veterans’ care and membership.
Wisconsin delegate Denise Rohan urged her fellow Legionnaires to continue their service not only to the organization but also to the nation, veterans and military personnel serving at home and abroad.
Rohan announced her theme after being sworn in. Family First is based on the American Legion’s motto of “For God and Country.”
“I believe we were put here, where you are today, and in the positions you hold currently for the greater good,” Rohan said. “We are not here to judge one another. We are here to nurture and take care of one another. Families grow through love and support for one another. As an American Legion family — we need to treat each other in that same spirit – like part of our larger extended family.”
Rohan urged delegates to keep up the support for military families as service members continue to be deployed across the world, Rohan urged delegates to continue their support for military families.
“The American Legion family will stand tall next to our heroes and their families,” she said. “There are National Guard and reserve families living in your hometowns who are feeling alone and afraid. Please continue to step up and make connections with those families. And, whenever possible, make that connection before the family member is deployed.”
While Rohan’s year will focus on working together, the outgoing commander, Charles E. Schmidt, told delegates he was concerned about the declining number of people who volunteer and assist with American Legion programs.
“We need to instill values of great citizenship to young people,” Schmidt said, for example, citing programs like oratorical contests, Boys and Girls state and American Legion baseball.
The former commander urged Legionnaires to lobby Congress, the White House and media to convince them freedom is not free, and the country needs a strong military to protect the American way of life. Schmidt asked who the volunteers will be in the next generation to promote these and other programs, help at VA facilities and maintain ideals. Schmidt said volunteers at VA (Veterans Affairs) medical facilities have saved the government $14 million.
“The American Legion is better off what you put into it,” he added.
Furthermore, he challenged state departments and posts to meet their membership goals because enrollment numbers keep declining. Membership, he said, has fallen to about 2 million, but many veterans — including those from the National Guard, reserves and active military — are eligible to join the American Legion.
“Membership determines our ability to implement and execute our programs,” he said.
One of the convention’s highlights occurred when VA Secretary David Shulkin discussed the improvements in veterans’ healthcare. He said the American Legion helped push five major new pieces of legislation that benefit veterans including an updated GI Bill, VA accountability, Choice legislation and VA appeals modernization.
Shulkin said by talking about problems, the VA and veterans are working to find solutions.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” he said.
Shulkin said the VA is scheduling more appointments than ever before including 40 percent of veterans who receive help from community facilities. He said this has reduced wait times and improved healthcare. Shulkin said the VA has been receiving more positive comments from veterans based on their online comments.
Shulkin said the Choice program is taking the red tape out of the system and making it easier for veterans to use walk-in clinics. He also stressed modernizing VA facilities because veterans deserve the best.
“Too many of our facilities are getting old and in disrepair,” he said. “We are going to be disposing of 1,100 facilities that are vacant or underutilized and reinvesting those resources back into facilities that veterans are being cared for right now. That will allow us to rebuild and to modernize our VA.”
Shulkin said the VA needs the right people in the right positions. He said the VA will no longer tolerate employees who do not believe it’s a privilege and honor to work with veterans.
“We’re moving people out of the VA who do not share our values,” Shulkin said, noting since January, more than 500 employees have been removed.
One day prior to his address, Shulin visited the Reno VA center to meet with community leaders and sign the “Be There” resolution to stop veteran suicides. Community leaders who signed the resolution included Shulkin; Brig. Gen. Burks, Nevada adjutant general; Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve; Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval’s chief of staff, Mike Willden; and Dr. Melissa Piasecki, executive associate dean of the University of Nevada, Reno’s School of Medicine.
“When it comes to 20 veterans a day taking their lives, it’s just a number we cannot accept,” said Shulkin, who emphasized September is suicide awareness month. “We have to do a lot more.”
Shulkin said he hopes to bring some of the successes of the VA’s “no wrong door” philosophy to combat homelessness among veterans and apply that to suicide prevention.
“These types of trainings and gatherings raise awareness and have done amazing things for us, even though it hasn’t got us down to zero, which is the ultimate goal,” Burks said. “We’ve come a long way in combating this scourge on our society. But there’s still a lot to do.”
Shulkin told Legionnaires the rate of suicide among veterans receiving care in a VA facility has declined during the past five years.
President Donald Trump signed legislation last Wednesday at the convention that will fix the VA appeals process to which Shulkin alluded before the president’s address.
“To fulfill our patriotic duties, we must take care of our great veterans,” Trump said. “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.”
The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 creates three appeals “lanes.” Veterans would choose the one that best suits their needs:
Local Higher Level Review Lane in which an adjudicator reviews the same evidence considered by the original claims processor.
New Evidence Lane in which the veteran could submit new evidence for review and have a hearing.
Board Lane in which jurisdiction for the appeal would transfer immediately to the Board of Veterans Appeals.
The law’s impact will be felt for a long time. “No longer will veterans be waiting to get their appeals heard,” Trump said, thanking the American Legion. “And they will get decisions much more quickly in a fraction of the time.”