An all-time high

The American Legion is only as strong as its membership base. The more devoted members it has, the better the organization can advocate for veterans and serve the military community which has given so much to our country.

With these sentiments in mind, the National Executive Committee passed Resolution 64 Oct. 17 during the Fall NEC Meetings in Indianapolis. The landmark directive charges the Legion’s Internal Affairs Commission and Membership & Post Activities Committee to establish a five-year strategic plan to help the organization reach a record in total membership by 2019, the Legion’s centennial.

The resolution was passed with stirring applause and resounding enthusiasm from all those who were assembled at national headquarters. Several NEC members and past national commanders spoke in support of the resolution, which represents a crucial first step for the organization in meeting its record number of 3.3 million members.

"Membership is the lifeblood of this organization," said Jerry Hedrick, National Executive Committeeman from North Carolina. "If we don’t have membership in this organization, we can’t have anything else. It revolves around everything."

Specifically, the resolution directs the Internal Affairs Commission and M&PA Committee to produce a five-year plan and present it to the NEC at the Spring Meetings in May of 2013. The backbone of the plan will be developing new posts in communities where there is a strong population of veterans but not enough Legion posts.

This direction will put a great deal of responsibility on departments, which will need to put the plan in effect and develop these posts and consolidate existing posts where necessary, Legion officials explained.

"You, as leaders, I know can go out there and do what needs to be done to get this membership base moving forward," Hedrick said. "We all love this organization, or we wouldn’t be here."

Developing a strong membership and starting new posts is not only positive for the organization, it’s good for the veteran population as a whole, Hedrick and others said.

"We’ve passed a lot of important resolutions during these meetings, but none of them will matter if we aren’t around to implement them," National Commander James E. Koutz said. "If we don’t keep advancing membership, who will be there to keep that veteran from falling through the cracks?"

During the meetings, Koutz also emphasized the importance of the upcoming elections – and allowing the military to play a role in those elections. He stressed the importance of ensuring all servicemembers have access to absentee voting ballots and that those ballots be correctly counted when cast.

Specifically, Koutz referenced a Military Voter Protection Project study that found absentee ballot requests from servicemembers are down 70 percent from the 2008 elections. Compounding the problem are studies that have found that in the previous two election cycles, possibly only a third to a half of military absentee ballots were actually counted.

"Now we all know that our military is not to engage in politics, but to me it is unconscionable that public officials are not making it as easy as possible for military members to vote," Koutz said, "Voting is not a political act. It’s an act of citizenship."

To ensure that military voter turnout is better than in the previous elections, Koutz said DoD should increase its efforts to send and receive electronic ballots, and most importantly never discard a ballot because of a "bureaucratic technicality."

He called on all those present at the meeting to return to their home departments and let their state representatives know of their concerns about military voting.

"It is up to all of us to remind Legion family members in our home departments how important it is for all of us to engage in this process," Koutz said. "We are all about service, and voting is one of the most important services that we can render as citizens."

Koutz also touched on two other legislative priorities that stand to affect veterans: defense budget sequestration - and its potential impact on DoD aid and current war-fighting capabilities - and VA’s claims backlog, which is currently estimated at approximately 1 million.

The message from Koutz was simple: "We need to break the back of the backlog."

"When you have almost 1 million veterans waiting for their claims to be resolved, you better hire more staff," Koutz said. "And here’s another idea: make sure that the additional staff that you hire are mostly veterans."

His message was equally urgent when addressing sequestration, which could cut DoD spending by $1 trillion over the next decade, impairing both the economy and national security, should Congress fail to design a plan to reduce the federal budget by Jan. 2.

Should sequestration not be diverted by the deadline date, Koutz warned, citing a George Mason study, that the trickle-down effect of the preventive measure could cause a loss of 2.1 million jobs and add 1.5 percentage points to the unemployment figure.

"Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called sequestration, ‘a crazy doomsday scenario’," Koutz said. "I was at a meeting with the Secretary on Oct. 1 in which he said, ‘We must be able to deal with every threat out there.’ I couldn’t agree more. And sequestration is a very real domestic threat that makes our troops and our nation more vulnerable.

"It must not happen."