How many American Legion national commanders have also served as head of VA?
Two. During the 1960s and 1970s, a pair of past national commanders led the agency (before its 1989 transition to a Cabinet-level department with a secretary, the Veterans Administration (VA) was independent, its head known as the "VA administrator.")
John S. Gleason Jr., born in Illinois in 1915, was national commander from 1957-1958 and was tapped to lead VA by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 – at 46, Gleason was then the youngest head ever. The World War II Army veteran was an organizer of and the first post commander at the First National Bank of Chicago post. He worked at the bank, as had his father before him. Gleason graduated from the University of Notre Dame and Harvard Business School, and attained the rank of brigadier general in the Illinois National Guard. He served as VA administrator until 1964. He died in 1993.
Donald E. Johnson, born in Iowa in 1924, was national commander from 1964-1965 and was appointed VA administrator by President Richard Nixon in 1969. Johnson had served as Iowa state commander from 1952-1953. The World War II Army veteran’s biological father had been gassed in World War I, and died of his injuries when Johnson was a child. It is thus ironic that he oversaw VA during the last part of the Vietnam War. His tenure was not always unruffled in those turbulent days, and he ultimately resigned from the position in 1974. He died in 1999.
In the June 2011 issue of The American Legion Magazine, National Commander Jimmie L. Foster made the point in his "Commander’s Message" that "as advocates for the patients, we are not - as is commonly misunderstood - adversaries of the government. One thing the Legion and VA always agree on: we share a mission to provide the best care possible for those who swore with their lives to protect our nation." Gleason and Johnson had already demonstrated this, decades before.