Like all American Legion national commanders, Clarence Hill followed a rigorous schedule during his year at the helm of the nation's largest veterans organization. He crisscrossed the nation, going department to department, sharing the organization's message and learning from Legionnaires at every level. He met with U.S. troops in Europe and Asia. He met with President Obama, members of Congress and dozens of high-ranking officials in Washington. Rarely was a day not filled with meetings, ceremonies, speeches and appearances. And every step of the way, Hill chronicled his activities on the Web, Facebook and Twitter, and urged Legionnaires to use the same channels to report their own activities and tell the Legion story.
But during the 92nd National Convention in Milwaukee from Aug. 31 to Sept. 2, Hill said neither his position as national commander nor the communications he delivered put him - and The American Legion - in the company of the nation's top decision-makers.
"You are the reason that I've met with the president of the United States three times - once at an executive-order signing, again at a Veterans Day breakfast and, also, in a private one-on-one meeting," Hill told thousands of delegates gathered at the Frontier Airlines Center. "It was on your behalf that I met the vice president twice, and also the VA secretary and deputy defense secretary. It was because of the power of The American Legion that I was able to meet 11 governors and lieutenant governors, 57 mayors, nine adjutants general, 27 state reps, 15 state senators, and made calls on 38 U.S. representatives and nine U.S. senators.
"It was because of the respect people have for The American Legion that I was invited to Veterans Day at Arlington and numerous gatherings, reunions and conventions, including the Berlin Airlift Association, the USS Indianapolis Association, Royal Canadian and Royal British Legions, and the Sons of The American Revolution. These activities are not about me; they are about you."
Under Hill's guidance, the Legion experienced a membership increase this year, though "not nearly as high as I would like it to be," he said. Communication through social media is an effective membership tool that needs to continue, he added.
"If we want to get new veterans into our organization, we must find new ways to talk about The American Legion," Hill told the crowd. "The national Web site received a major overhaul this past year, and The American Legion has pages on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social-networking sites. New media and blogs are making an impact in this country, and they are making history for The American Legion as well. Not only did they contribute to our Pepsi (Refresh Everything Project) victory, but The American Legion's Burn Pit blog raised more than $150,000 for troops at COP Keating, Afghanistan, when their personal gear was destroyed in battle.
"While nothing should replace face-to-face contact, just think about the role new technology can play in reaching out to people who are always on the go and in remote locations. The membership potential is enormous."
Hill recapped the Legion's accomplishments this year, including the passage of the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act of 2009 and protection of VA and DoD health-care services from the national health-care reform package.
Veteran health care "is not a mere benefit," he explained. "It is not an entitlement. It is the payment of a debt that our nation owes. It has been earned. The premiums and co-pays of these patients were paid during their oaths of enlistment. The strongest way to show our patriotism is to care for those who served."
Hill pledged the Legion's continued support for U.S. forces fighting in the global war on terror as the focus shifts from Iraq to Afghanistan.
"It was just a couple of years ago that we were told that the war in Iraq was hopeless," Hill said. "But we saw positive results from a troop surge led by (Gen. David) Petraeus - a strategy supported by The American Legion from the beginning, when the outcome was far from clear. We continue to have faith that Gen. Petraeus, with the help of the finest military in the world, will make significant progress in Afghanistan. The American Legion has voiced some serious concerns against pre-announced deadlines for withdrawal, which simply tell our enemies to lay low until we leave. We must listen to our military commanders and allow conditions on the ground to determine our strategy. America must never again allow foreign lands to be safe breeding grounds for terrorists who wish to do us harm."
Supporting their mission means caring for the men and women fighting the war, and those who are waiting for their safe return.
"We must support our military members, who are stretched thin due to frequent deployments, by advocating for the economic needs of their families," Hill said. "We must ensure that the weapons, training and quality of life received by our men and women in uniform are worthy of the outstanding service they are providing to this nation. The American Legion has added staff at major military medical commands to assist our heroes with any needs they may have as they transition back into society, or, in some cases, remain on duty."
While the Legion logged many successes during his year as commander, challenges remain, Hill said. "Our position on illegal immigration can be summed up in two short sentences: Amnesty won't work. Secure our borders. It's a matter of fairness. We have no quarrel with those who enter the country legally. Those who do not have no business cutting in front of the line."
He continued, "Do you know what else is a matter of fairness? Abolishing the disabled veterans tax. Although in the past few years Congress and the White House have lifted the tax for some military retirees, The American Legion believes that any veteran who has to pay this tax is one too many. Retired and disabled veterans deserve full concurrent receipt. Some were wounded in the battlefields. They understood the stakes. They advanced to the sound of the guns. We must not shortchange them."
During the convention, Hill presented The American Legion Distinguished Service Medal to Boy Scouts of America. Assistant Chief Scout Executive James Terry accepted the award on behalf of BSA. Hill also presented the Patriot Award to Duane M. Jackson and Lance L. Orton Sr. - two New York City Legionnaires who helped halt an attempted terrorist bombing in Times Square earlier this year - and Army National Guard Maj. David Howell, who brought a young boy home with him from Iraq and arranged for five reconstructive surgeries. The child had suffered burns in a house fire as an infant, and his father - who served as an interpreter for U.S. forces - was later killed by insurgents.
Department of Defense Secretary Robert Gates addressed convention delegates and helped present the Legion's Spirit of Service Awards.
Actor, economist, filmmaker and author Ben Stein served as master of the opening ceremonies on Aug. 27, and the musical group 4TROOPS - four Iraq and Afghanistan veterans - brought the crowd to their feet with several patriotic songs.
In keeping with tradition, donations to various Legion programs and funds poured in from the convention floor, including $160,000 for the Child Welfare Foundation, Children's Miracle Network, the National Emergency Fund and Operation Comfort Warriors. The Legacy Run, now in its fifth year, brought in more than $630,000 for the Legacy Scholarship Fund. The five-day, 1,400-mile pre-convention ride included stops in Illinois, Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota before finishing up in Milwaukee. The ride included nearly 250 participants who raised college funds for the children of servicemembers killed on active duty on or after Sept. 11, 2001.
Impressive Lineup. America's leaders went to Milwaukee to address the convention, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He told Legionnaires that mistakes made by the United States the first time it became involved in Afghanistan have helped shape the strategy for the current war.
"I would remind everyone that this country's leaders, myself included, made the mistake 20 years ago of abandoning Afghanistan to chaos, of believing its power vacuum did not and should not concern us, and that we could eliminate threats from a distance at little cost to ourselves," Gates said. "As events have shown in New York, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, London, Madrid, Amman, Lahore, Jakarta and around the world, we were wrong.
"(Gen. David) Petraeus believes, I believe and the president believes that we now have the right strategy in Afghanistan, a strategy that represents our best chance of achieving goals essential to the safety of the United States: delivering a strategic defeat to al-Qaeda and its extremist affiliates by rolling back the Taliban from their strongholds, building Afghan capacity to secure their own territory, and in so doing, denying a safe haven to terrorists that would attack our country once again. That is our objective and our strategy, and the only possible justification for the risks and sacrifices we ask of our troops."
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader John Boehner and U.S. Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., took their turns at the podium. Joining them was House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Filner, D-Calif., who said the nation should have learned from mistakes it made when troops returned from Vietnam, and that those mistakes should not be repeated, regardless of the public's view of the war.
"What is not up for debate is the care of our younger people or older people, when they come back from that war," Filner said. "They need to get all the care, the love, the attention, the honor that a nation can give. Even if we didn't know that in our heads, we should have seen what happened in Vietnam. That war was divisive. I opposed that war. But we should have differentiated between the warrior and the war. We should have welcomed them home as heroes.
"We're paying a horrible price as a nation. Individuals and families paid the price. You know that half the homeless around the United States are Vietnam veterans. That's 200,000. That's a national disgrace that we allowed that to happen. There have been more suicides by Vietnam vets than died in the original war. That's over 58,000. That is a terrible stain on America in that we allowed that to happen. You can't prevent every person from doing things to themselves that you would not want them to do, but you can certainly take care of the vast range of mental-health concerns, of physical-health concerns, that may have led to that suicide. But we didn't do it."
Filner noted that the VA health-care budget has increased by 60 percent in the past four years, adding that the money needs to continue to go to the right places.
"I think you all know we have a great VA, but I think you all know we have a long way to go," he said. "We have too many that still think that VA means ‘veterans adversary' - a lot of those who have Agent Orange claims, for example. And our job is to make sure we are veterans advocates. That's the VA that everybody knows and respects.
"I think we've come a long way. We've done some good things in the past few years. In the four years that I've been chairman, we have raised the VA health-care budget by $23 billion - unprecedented in the history of VA, and unprecedented for any other budget at this time of deficits in the nation. VA now has resources to be responsive to everybody. My job as chairman ... is to be the watchdog. To make sure they spend that money wisely, fairly, efficiently, but with responsiveness. That they spend it on veterans' needs."
New National Commander Elected. Delegates unanimously elected Jimmie Foster - an Army and Marine Corps veteran and member of Spenard Post 28 in Anchorage, Alaska - national commander for 2010-2011. He was administered the oath of office by Past National Commander Daniel Ludwig of Minnesota. After passing the mantle of leadership, Hill received a plaque of appreciation and the commander's colors from Ronald Conley of Pennsylvania and John "Jake" Comer of Massachusetts, two past national commanders.
In his acceptance speech, Foster thanked delegates, then asked them to join him in committing to serve as many veterans as possible in the coming Legion year.
"My motto or slogan is the word SAVED, meaning ‘Serving America's Veterans Every Day,'" Foster said. "I don't care how you do it, but I want you to ensure that you take care of our veterans in any way possible. It does not have to be something monumental. Just say, ‘Thank you for serving our country.' That will work."
Foster expressed his firm belief in the Legion's four pillars: national security, veterans affairs and rehabilitation, Americanism, and children and youth. He also urged Legion posts to get outfitted with Wi-Fi Internet access.
"You may not be interested, but some prospective young new member may be," Foster said. He also urged Legionnaires to pursue Reconnect visits with local military installations.
"Don't forget the reserves and National Guard members," Foster said. "Never before have they been deployed on multiple rotations as they are now. Make sure you invite them into The American Legion and show them you care by having a Heroes to Hometowns function upon their return."
Foster then called for a renewed focus on recruiting female and minority veterans into the Legion, and praised Legion Riders for their nonstop efforts in raising money for The American Legion Legacy Scholarship Fund.
He vowed to keep pressure on VA to reduce the claims backlog: "As a former department service officer, you can bet I will advocate on a daily basis to make this happen."
Legislative priorities for Foster include continued advance funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs and passage of the flag amendment. He also explained his "Lucky 7" Award membership program. "You have to sign up two new members and five renewals to attain this pin," Foster said. "We have a limited number of these pins, but I want you to force us to purchase more pins, because that means we are signing up more members in The American Legion."
Steve B. Brooks is multimedia editor for The American Legion.
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READ about Boy Scouts of America receiving the Distinguished Service Medal, the Michael Peterson and 4TROOPS concert, the Heroes to Hometowns job fair, the Legion's Education Symposium, the Spirit of Service winners, the Montagnards honoring the Legion, and much more.