It's never been easy for Dave Rehbein to talk about his job. For 20 years, when asked about it, he'd just say, "I work at Iowa State."
Finally, his wife, Ann, told him, "You know, Dave, people are going to think you're a janitor. Tell them you do scientific work."
That only sparked more curiosity. But how do you say you're evaluating the effectiveness of shape memory alloy couplers, or observing degradation over time in solder joints, or determining material characteristics using nonlinear acoustics?
"That's a sure way to make their eyes glaze over, to tell them you're a physicist," Rehbein says, laughing. "I was never able to explain to my parents what I did for a living."
That won't be a problem with his new position. In June, Rehbein retired from Ames Laboratory after 34 years to accept a new challenge: leading The American Legion. Installed in August at the 90th National Convention of The American Legion, in Phoenix, he's serving as national commander during a presidential election year of tremendous importance to U.S. military members, veterans and their families. No matter which party wins the White House or controls Congress, he relishes a fresh opportunity for the Legion to advance its legislative priorities, including support for the war on terrorism, mandatory funding for VA, laws to reduce illegal immigration, and a constitutional amendment that returns to Americans the right to protect the U.S. Flag from desecration.
Meanwhile, in-house, Rehbein is encouraging stronger relationships between local American Legion posts and their district and department officers - face time of the sort the organization depends on to recruit and retain members.
"We need our leadership to be out among the people," he says. "You can't inspire and lead over the telephone. You can't inspire and lead through the mail. Every American Legion post should receive a visit from a district officer, at the very least, every year. That's not happening. If leaders won't go and see them, how can we convince posts to go knock on their members' doors?"
Not exactly rocket science, but Rehbein is convinced that personal contact is the Legion's most effective membership tool. "I once heard it said that people don't care how much you know about them, as long as they know how much you care about them."
Part of Something. Originally from Nebraska, the Rehbeins joined The American Legion family in Iowa after moving there in 1974. They belong to Post 37, a fixture on Main Street in historic downtown Ames where Dave has served as commander, finance officer and adjutant. He's also been district commander and department membership chairman, and he represented Iowa on the National Executive Committee. More recently, he's served as chairman of the National Foreign Relations, Legislative and Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation commissions.
Ann has an impressive Legion family résumé of her own. The daughter of a World War II veteran who built her hometown's Legion post, she came up through the Junior Auxiliary and is an Iowa Auxiliary past department president. The Rehbeins' children are active, too. Jennifer, 30, is a Navy veteran with dual membership in the Legion and the Auxiliary; Chris, 34, is a past Sons of The American Legion squadron commander.
"I call myself a Legion brat," says Jennifer, who was serving on board an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean when Operation Iraqi Freedom began. "Really, this is our family. My brother and I grew up here. Mom and Dad would have meetings or color guard, and we'd be running around the post."
Chris adds that "the Legion's given us a sharp picture of what's important, and helped us truly appreciate the legacy of our veterans and our military."
Distill their years, memories and experiences into one reason why Rehbein and his family have stayed with the organization, and he'll say it's the people.
"When Ann and I first got involved with the post here in town, everybody was so friendly," he recalls. "They wanted us to come help them do whatever the post was doing, to help us find a place where we could make a contribution."
One of the first was training for local babysitters. The Rehbeins and three other couples proposed a Post 37 program and ended up receiving $150 to bring in medical professionals and to pay for publicity. The program's success gave them a feeling of ownership, something he says young veterans appreciate.
But first, those vets have to be invited to join the organization. Will they join? Rehbein thinks so.
"The next generation is sometimes characterized as not being joiners, but everybody who's eligible to join The American Legion right now has proved they're joiners because they volunteered to serve," he says. "Let's not spend a lot of time worrying about that 90 percent of the generation who may not be joiners and concentrate on the 10 percent who have already proved they know how to stand up and say, ‘I want to be part of something.'"
Service and Science. Rehbein himself was a draftee. In 1969, he graduated from Nebraska Vocational Technical College, then went to work for a defense contractor. Four months later, layoffs hit, and within six weeks the letter arrived. He spent the winter at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., in Army basic training, then moved on to Fort Ord, Calif. The day he left home, his mother couldn't bear to go to the bus station to say goodbye.
"My little hometown of about 1,200 people lost three guys in Vietnam, one of them just two weeks before I was inducted, so emotions were pretty high in North Bend," he says. "Back then, if you really thought about it, you'd been drafted, you were going to be in the infantry, you were probably going to Vietnam, and there was a possibility you weren't going to come home."
As it happened, Rehbein ended up in Germany, where he served with the 4th and 1st Armored Divisions as mortar gunner, fire direction control, company armorer and, finally, supervisor of a four-man radio shop. His electronics training helped him quickly make E-5, and another promotion looked certain. Though he flirted with the idea of staying in the military, he eventually turned down re-enlistment so he could continue his education.
Short as Rehbein's service was, those years as a soldier were formative.
"Life had been easy for me," he says. "School was nothing. I'd never really been challenged all that much. The major thing the military did for me was make my emotional age equal to my chronological age - a nice way of saying I stopped being a teenager and grew up. That's where I learned everything I know about leadership, and that I was capable of a lot more, physically and mentally, than I realized."
Ten days after leaving the Army in 1971, Rehbein met Ann, who was working as a cook for a fraternity while also attending college at Kearney State in Nebraska. They married the next summer, and he studied physics at Wayne State. Two years later, they decided together to transfer to Iowa State University in Ames, where Rehbein got a summer job on campus at the U.S. Department of Energy laboratory. Once he finished his master's work in 1979, the job turned into a full-time position as a research metallurgist.
In his three decades at the Ames lab, Rehbein specialized in non-destructive evaluation, testing parts while they're in use to determine if they should be pulled or can remain in service. Two large projects involved analyzing various components of aircraft engines and developing ways to send a robot down onto underground nuclear-waste storage tanks in Savannah River, S.C., and Hanford, Wash., to assess their integrity.
"Dave's done some very important work in the course of his career here," says Tom Lograsso, Rehbein's former supervisor. "I'll miss having him to rely on, someone you can give a directive to and know it won't just be done right but be done with the right amount of forethought. It's a wonderful thing to have an employee you have that level of trust in. I think the Legion has one up on us."
Friendly Faces. In early June, Rehbein met with hundreds of Hawkeye Boys State delegates at Camp Dodge in Johnston, Iowa. In a speech that's become somewhat of a tradition, he urged the young men to go after leadership roles.
"I'm a farm boy," he told them. "I went to the last of the one-room schoolhouses. It doesn't matter where you come from. If you're not taking on challenges that scare you a bit, you're not living up to your potential."
Rehbein speaks from personal experience. Only when Legion colleagues encouraged him to think about running for national commander did he begin to consider the possibility. Now that he's here, he admits he has some initial jitters. "The American Legion is a well-respected organization," he says. "To be the person recognized as its leader places a lot of responsibility on your shoulders. But I know that when I go places, when I travel as commander, the room will be full of friendly faces, and that means an awful lot."
Back home, friends and family say Rehbein will represent his state well. In fact, Ann reveals a little-known secret that she thinks says a lot about her husband's character, and the sort of national commander Legionnaires have in him.
"He'd never tell you, but he does funerals, and he's excellent at it," she says. "A while ago, one of our friends was about to pass away; he wasn't affiliated with a church, and he didn't have a minister. He knew Dave was a kind, caring man, and asked him to lead his service. Since then, he's done about a dozen to 15."
An Army Special Forces veteran who served in Thailand during the Vietnam War, Keven Brace met Rehbein after joining Post 37 in 1986. "Dave knows what he believes in, and he's able to get people to work together," he says. "He'll do an outstanding job as commander."
Marion Eacret, a World War II Army veteran and 45-year member of Post 37, agrees, calling Rehbein's election an honor.
"He's Iowa's fifth national commander, and Ames' first, so we're proud to see Dave serve," Eacret says. "He knows so much about the organization and has a great mind. Through the years, if I've needed something, he's had the answers. I'm confident he'll be one of the best commanders we've ever had."
Matt Grills is associate editor at The American Legion Magazine.
Top 10 things you don't know about Dave Rehbein
10. In his office at Ames Laboratory, he kept a stuffed pterodactyl, a tube from a World War II-era German radar set, a cherished "Dilbert" cartoon, and a sign that reads, "Due to recent cutbacks, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off until further notice."
9. In 1962, he was the Dodge County, Neb., Spelling Bee champ. The winning word? "Reminiscence."
8. He may seem like a pro in front of an audience, but he'll tell you that hasn't always been the case. "There's a podium at Wayne State College that still has the imprint of my fingers in it from the first time I had to speak."
7. At Ann's behest, he rented shoes to wear at their wedding. That's about the only time he's been seen without cowboy boots. "If I have a weakness, that's it. I have trouble getting out of the store on some days."
6. When his son, Chris, was young enough to play with "Transformers" toys, he'd talk for a half hour at a time about the engineering behind them. Ah, the fun of having a physicist for a dad.
5. "I don't dance, but I like disco music."
4. Two of his first official acts of retirement include reading the "Dune" series and watching all six "Star Wars" movies in order.
3. The first time The American Legion convened in Phoenix, in 1991, Chris won a seven-day Caribbean cruise as a door prize. His parents took the cruise and sent Chris on a class trip to Germany.
2. "I've never met a chocolate chip cookie I didn't like."
1. His last cigarette was Jan. 12, 1999, after 30 years of smoking. Quitting was the hardest thing he ever did, he says. "I remember telling Ann, ‘If this is going to add 10 years to my life, they'd better be 10 really good years.'"