The following is the entire transcript of National Commander Mike Helm’s speech given Aug. 28 before delegates at the 96th National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., where he was elected leader of the nation’s largest veterans organization.
Today on this otherwise joyous occasion for me, a shadow falls over this convention in the passing of my great friend and mentor for many years. Jerry Hedrick, has passed on to the Great Legion Post in the sky. Jerry Hedrick, the NECMan from the great Department of North Carolina, was a presence in this organization for so many years that he has touched the lives of us all in a very good way. Jerry was always positive. I don’t believe I ever heard Jerry say a harsh word about anyone. He would look at an issue and give you an honest course of action that he thought was best for you and best for the organization. I know his wife Marie, Adjutant Frank, and the whole Department of North Carolina are saddened beyond words and we all share that sadness. “Jerry, my friend, let me just say this in paraphrasing St. Paul in his second letter to Timothy.- ‘You have fought the good fight, you have finished the race, you have kept the faith. Your reward in heaven is certainly deserved.’ Rest well my friend, rest well.”
Now I would like to say that this is a humbling position that I find myself in as I congratulate and thank National Commander Dan Dellinger for a great year of service to the American Legion. You have polished and made shine The American Legion Emblem, as a great symbol for all to see. This convention and all of our membership thank you. It will be a shame if we don’t take advantage of your efforts.
I want to thank PNC Jake Comer for all of his support and guidance as I came up through the ranks. He has been a true mentor and friend not only of me but my entire family. My thoughts and prayers are with you as, in a very short time, you have lost two great friends in Dick and Jerry.
Let me now recognize my family. First, my wife: she knew from the start that I had a love and commitment to the American Legion Family that was sometimes going to take precedence over our family from time to time. I want to thank her for the support she has given me over the years. My love, My wife, my Honey Bear, Debbie … I love you.
Of course you all watched our family grow over the years. It was always fun to come to a National Convention to see another of Mike and Deb’s kids make the scene. First Aaron and his wife Robie, both graduates of West Point. They are just finishing a deployment to Kuwait and will return to Ft. Hood next month.
Rebecca, who presented my commander pin, and her husband Jaron Cox. They are both graduates of K-State University in Manhattan, Kansas, and reside in San Antonio, Texas. Jacob is a senior this year at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. I will certainly be there when he graduates in May.
My third son is Matthew. He is a sophomore at K-State in Manhattan, Kansas, and is in the Army ROTC Program. And last is Timothy, who placed my name tag on. He is a senior at Decatur Community High School in Oberlin, Kansas.
I wish my father and mother were here. They came to enjoy national conventions in their later years. My dad, John, loved the parade and finally quit coming when he couldn’t stand and salute the colors as they passed by. He has joined Post Everlasting, but my mother Helen is watching on Legion TV back home. Hi Mom!
Let me real quick introduce my immediate family. My brother Jim and wife Yanis from McCook, Nebraska,. My sister, Kathy Brashears, from Curtis, Nebraska. My sister CeAnne and husband Marty Rinhart from Ogahlala, Nebraska. Their son, John Henry Rinehart, who is my godson, from Colby Kansas. My niece Natasha and her husband Andrew Sloan from Kernersville, N.C. and my nephew Andrew Helm and his friend Megan from Athens, Alabama.
Family is bigger than genetics and growing up the Helm family had a closeness with the Shobe family. We shared the same religion, ideals, joys and sorrow over the years and I am happy to have Cindy Whitely here from Lawrence, Kansas, to share in this moment.
Let me get to my Department. I just want to remember Wayne Davis from up in District One. He was my first and most important mentor. He has gone on before us, but was a great individual who always had time to be a part of my efforts.
I want to thank my campaign manager Don Suchy and his wife Marge. They spent many hours on this campaign. He provided wise counsel to me as the campaign unfolded and I will always be grateful for that. Thanks Marge and Don. Just remember your not done yet. Also, Doug Boldt and his wife Mary Ann. They have been a great team in providing support and direction as we prepared the campaign rooms along the way. You all know Past National Historian Bob Craig who gave my nomination speech. He served as my Finance Officer. He has been a friend for a long time. Thanks, Bob.
I want to recognize Past National President Carol Van Kirk from Sutton, Nebraska. Her support and wise counsel has been very much appreciated. Our NECman Jerry Landkamer, his wife Starla, and son Thomas. Our Alt NEC Bill Crosier. Leon Hagan and his wife Faye.
I want to thank Adjutant Dave Salak, and all of the department staff for their support. I want to give a special thanks for many years of support over the years to Sandy Steinkamp. She is the rock at department that keeps us going. This is her first national convention. Thanks Charlie for sharing her with us.
I also want to thank Eva Nollette and Virginia Nelson who provided the leadership and support of the Nebraska Auxiliary. Also, Harold Thompson and Danny Smith for all of their help with the Sons of The American Legion.
Next I want to thank Team Nebraska. We didn’t know everything there was to know about the commitment it takes to put together a campaign like this. I’m not sure they would do it again but they have done a great job and I will only say thank you all for everything you did. We will have more time Sept. 6 to say some more thanks in Kearney.
I also want to thank District Nine for all of their help. We are a very small district but they have put out the effort to make this day happen. I want to recognize Richard Baxter, Roger Floyd and Joann Ward for their help. Thank you Nebraska American Legion, American Legion Auxiliary, Sons of the American Legion and Legion Riders-all.
It took a lot of years to get here. So many of you have been so supportive and so happy for me. And that extends well beyond my own department – but throughout the entire country. Thank you so much. I love you all.
Let me also recognize and congratulate National President Janet Jefford and Sons of the American Legion Commander Mike Moss on their recent election. We have already set down to plan a course of direction with the American Legion Family along with the American Legion Riders.
One of the greatest documents in our organization is the Preamble to our Constitution that we recite at each of our meetings. I see it as a call to action. “for God and Country we associate ourselves together for the following purposes- to uphold and defend, to maintain, to foster and perpetuate, to preserve, to inculcate, to combat, to make right, to promote, to safe guard and transmit, to consecrate and sanctify.” I love these words. The man that wrote them was Hamilton Fish a founding father of this organization. He was a representative from New York from 1920-1945. He introduced the bill to establish the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In my early years of the American Legion I had occasion to meet Honorary PNC Fish. He related the fact that he has met a man who knew General Lafayette of the American Revolution. I think that demonstrates what a young idea democracy is. Think about it: from Lafayette to someone to PNC Fish to me. Now think about how far democracy and freedom has brought this world in that short amount of time compared to the age of civilization. Certainly the footprint is large and more important today than ever. The American Legion has played a large role in making sure this nation stays that same course. That is the plan for this year “Stay the Course.” And no, I do NOT mean that we shouldn’t raise the bar and constantly seek to improve.
What I mean by “stay the course” is to continue to live and honor the great traditions and values established by our founders nearly a century ago. These policies and traditions that got us here will continue to guide us forward.
First of all we are a God and Country organization and we will not apologize for that. We know that a veteran is a citizen of this country who has offered his or her life to honor this nation’s commitment to justice freedom and democracy and by that action has had his or her life radically and sometimes violently changed forever. We will not let this nation forget that we owe that individual respect and any help they need in making their lives whole again.
We address those needs with the 4 pillars of our organization.
Take, for instance, Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Under the Leadership of our National Commander we have drawn the line in the sand. We say now that the health-care needs of the individual veterans must be met in a timely manner. We say that the VA can do a better job in the claims and appeals process. At the same time we will continue seek out answers to what went wrong at the VA and why it went wrong. Those people involved will be held accountable. We know that what happened wasn’t an accident or a circumstance. There is an entrenchment in VA that is not helpful to veterans health care or compensation. We will find it and get rid of it at the same time we will continue to support the VA as a national provider of veterans health care. We need our VA medical facilities because we know it can be and is the best care anywhere if administrated properly. Those calling for the end of the VA and privatization of veterans health care are wrong. We continue to see The American Legion as partners and friends of the VA. We know they can and will do better.
Also a great concern we have is our national defense. We cannot continue to see the mounting crises erupting in the world and still think it is a prudent thing to reduce our military force and training. Those forces of evil and hate are enemies of our way of life. This nation must be ready to answer that challenge. We will also continue our efforts to end illegal immigration. It is a national security issue of great importance. Fair and legal immigration is a good thing that has helped build this country into a great nation. We must continue that process. Anything else is a constant danger. Especially amnesty proposals which seek to reward illegal behavior and penalize those who have waited patiently to immigrate the legal way.
We will continue to support our Children and Youth programs and Americanism programs. These programs are not only a challenge and adventure for our youth, they also make up the fabric that keeps us strong as a nation. This year we will also make a concentrated effort in assimilation of citizenship. Hopefully we can utilize those post across this great country that are near U.S. citizenship and immigration service field offices to help in bringing legal immigrants to full citizenship. We were involved in this years ago and now is the time to renew our efforts.
I know the task ahead is full. We all know that it takes membership to do those things only we can do. Along with all you do in this area I am asking you to renew your efforts in renewals. We cannot grow as an organization if we recruit a new member and then fail to renew that member the following years. Right now we are losing at least 10 percent of our membership thru nonrenewal. This has to stop. Your department has a membership recruiting team. It is time to have a department, district and post retention team.
We continue to ask for a better reporting of our post activities. The percentage of posts making the Consolidated Post Report is increasing but we are still lacking a lot of reports. My department along with a few others have been hitting the 100 percent mark. Let’s make that a special effort this year. All district commanders should have that as a goal.
For the next year, you will hear a lot about my new favorite number —“Four.” And no, I am not referring to an errant drive on the golf course – a sport that I never had a passion for, so please don’t be offended if I decline to hit the links with you.
I’m talking about Four Million Dollars for programs that benefit our Four Pillars in all American Legion Family programs and charities. And we do this using a Four-by-Four. Not a truck, but the four wheels that keep The American Legion Family moving forward – that’s the Legion, The American Legion Auxiliary, the Sons of The American Legion, and, of course, our American Legion Riders. We are going to raise money - $4 million – for all of our charitable programs. And we are going to do this for God and country.
And yes, I also believe in a Four Million Member American Legion Family – and we can do it if we work on the 4 Rs – Recruiting, Revitalization, Renewals and Reconnecting.
First, look at our great programs. I have been involved in fundraising for so many different areas, I could not choose one “best” program. And I do believe in the family approach.
Operation Comfort Warriors provides direct support for wounded, injured and ill soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and coast guardsmen. Whether it’s an Amazon giftcard or a backpack full of DVDs, OCW is a great way for us to show our appreciation for those who have sacrificed on our behalf.
Our partnership with Soldier’s Wish also lends itself to great opportunities to tell our heroes how much we truly appreciate their service.
Let’s not forget the Child Welfare Foundation, the American Legion Legacy Scholarship Fund, Temporary Financial Assistance and the Family Support Network.
Most veterans believe that the nicest thing you can do for them is to be kind to their families. The most common request of a soldier who is dying on the battlefield is “tell my wife I love her.” Nothing will be appreciated by a veteran more than taking care of his or her family. And that’s exactly what these programs are intended to do.
The American Legion Auxiliary Foundation supports America’s core values by providing additional resources necessary to ensure the success of Auxiliary programs and services, such as Spirit of Youth Scholarships, and Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation programs.
Just this week two hurricanes have formed – one in the Pacific and one in the Atlantic. Wildfires, tornadoes and earthquakes will continue to happen and affect our members and American Legion posts. Commander Dellinger has done a terrific job in increasing awareness about the National Emergency Fund, and I know that I can count on your continued generous support of that great program.
The Auxiliary Emergency Fund is a national grant assistance program that provides temporary emergency help to eligible members of the American Legion Auxiliary who have suffered a significant financial setback as the result of an act of nature or other personal crisis.
I am leaving the choice of fundraising to you. All I ask is that you give. We will track the fundraising throughout the family and I believe that we will see that total reach $4 million.
America is paying attention to The American Legion not just because we are right on the issues, but because we are doing these great things in our communities.
We will always be about service first – but, folks, we can’t provide the programs or the service without the membership. Practice those 4 Rs. Recruit every eligible veteran that you come in contact. Recruit their sons, grandsons, wives, daughters and granddaughters into the American Legion Family.
You don’t need to be near a military base to reconnect with servicemembers. Reserve and Guard units have deployed in record numbers since 9/11 and most are eligible for American Legion membership.
Renewal efforts shouldn’t just include those who left your post in the past year, but check back on those who might have left five or even 10 years ago. They might have had a change in heart or simply forgot to renew because nobody was pro-active enough to take an interest in them.
National Headquarters also offers plenty of resources available for posts that wish to revitalize. Think of it as a “Five-Hour-Energy Shot” for a tired post. Check out the resources available on the publications page of legion.org or call your membership division and National Headquarters.
We will have a banner ribbon for posts, units and squadrons that reach 100 percent membership as a family. Hopefully, each family member will help lift the other units of the family to that 100 percent level.
I think this American Legion Family approach to membership and giving will be a plus for everyone.
In closing, I’d like to again remind people to Stay the Course. But carry a four iron, even if I do hate golf!
God Bless you all, and God Bless America.