During the summer of 2007, Marty Conatser had the opportunity to visit U.S. troops stationed in Iraq. While there, he received a challenge coin from Gen. David Petraeus. The day he was elected American Legion national commander for 2007-2008, Conatser presented the coin as a challenge to the entire American Legion family to continue its support of the U.S. military mission in Iraq.
A year later, at the 90th National Convention in Phoenix Aug. 22-28, Conatser and a series of prominent guest speakers pointed out that the Legion family stepped up and met the challenge.
"The coin represented his challenge to not let our soldiers be forgotten," Conatser said from the podium of the Phoenix Convention Center, his voice choked with emotion. "I'm glad to say you didn't do that. You did a great job."
Conatser's words echoed those of presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama, Vice President Dick Cheney, Marine Corps Commandant James T. Conway and many others who addressed thousands of convention delegates. The Legion's tireless efforts on behalf of veterans, children and youth, along with the generosity of its members, also were praised during the convention.
Conatser pointed specifically to successful Legion lobbying efforts to pass a new, improved GI Bill. "Rep. Chet Edwards recently said, ‘Passing this historic new GI Bill into law could not have happened without the dedicated efforts of The American Legion,'" Conatser said. "It's because of the phone calls you made, letters you wrote and e-mails that you sent. When the White House hemmed and hawed, The American Legion roared, and soon both parties in Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill that will cover the college costs for our military heroes and, in some cases, their families.
"Something else that could not have happened without some of the people in this room, and grassroots support from Legionnaires in their communities, is the record VA budget that passed this year. Congress has finally funded the VA budget at the levels recommended by The American Legion. Congress cares about the Legion's opinions - not just because we are veterans, but because we are nonpartisan, and we are straight-shooters with the facts. We focus on policies, not personalities."
American Legion programs such as Heroes to Hometowns, the National Emergency Fund and the Child Welfare Foundation are examples of what's good about America, Conatser added. "Legionnaires manifest their support for children with many other outstanding programs as well," he said. "You can sometimes judge the character of an organization by looking at its critics. Though Boy Scouts of America is under attack by local governments, the media and secularists, The American Legion's support for the Boy Scouts remains unwavering."
The Legion also will not back off on illegal immigration and protection of the U.S. Flag, Conatser added. "The American Legion knows that if these radical groups are not stopped now, military chaplains, religious symbols in veterans cemeteries and even ‘In God We Trust' can all be taken away," he said. "The American Legion believes that legislative protection - the Public Expression of Religion Act - is good for America.
"Need I say that protecting Old Glory from desecration is also good for America? It has been a long and sometimes uphill fight, but just as we do not leave our heroes behind in war, we will not give up fighting for the flag. Nor will we give up fighting for our borders. America may be a nation of immigrants, but it is also a nation of laws. What part of ‘illegal' does the federal government not understand? If an illegal farm worker can enter the United States unchecked, so can terrorists who want to kill Americans."
Vice President Cheney thanked the Legion on behalf of the U.S. military and veterans alike.
"The Legion serves America by leading on important issues, from health care and education, to employment opportunities for veterans, to homeland security, to a better quality of life for our military families," he said. "You speak up for liberty and democracy because you know what those ideals mean and because you know the price that's been paid for our freedoms.
"I also want to thank each of you for the unstinting support you are giving to the men and women serving in our military today. I know it means a lot to those serving far away, and to those you've welcomed home from their deployments. We are blessed with the finest military any nation has ever fielded, and may we never take them or their families for granted."
Election Year. The Republican nominee for president, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and the Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, spoke to the delegates - McCain in person and Obama via a taped video presentation from the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
Obama themed his presentation largely on national security and the global war on terrorism. "Our troops have completed every mission they have been given," Obama said. "It's time to press the Iraqis to take responsibility for their future. The best way to do that is a responsible redeployment of our combat brigades, carried out in close consultation with commanders on the ground."
He called for "ending the war responsibly" in Iraq and shifting attention to Afghanistan and Pakistan, which he described as the "central front in the war on terrorism."
Obama also announced his intentions to "build a 21st-century VA" with improved technology and communications, more Vet Centers with less red tape, fewer delays and "zero tolerance for (homeless) veterans who are sleeping in the streets."
McCain also delivered a promise to reform the VA health-care system. "I will not accept a situation in which veterans are denied access to care on account of travel distances, backlogs of appointments and years of pending disability evaluation and claims," he said. "We should no longer tolerate requiring veterans to stand in one line for a ticket to stand in another."
McCain added that VA legislation that could improve some of those problems is weighed down by "wasteful and often worthless political pork ... When we make it clear to Congress that no earmark bill will be signed into law, that will save many billions of dollars that can be applied to essential priorities and, above all, to the care of our veterans."
The Military Standpoint. Marine Corps Commandant James T. Conway described how the war in Iraq has changed his branch of service and how, in some ways, the Marine Corps needs to return to its roots. "We are heavier than we have ever been, out of necessity, because we've got to defeat the weapons that are being deployed against us on the battlefield. We have 48,000-pound MRAPs - mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles. We have many more pieces of rolling stock in the battalions than we have ever had before. Heavier weapons, more communications. The problem is, what we offer to the nation is the ability to get out of town quick, be agile, hit hard when we get there. Right now, we are too big. We are too heavy to be able to do that.
"Secondly, I think we've got to get back to developing an expeditionary mindset. Today, if you are to ask a young Marine what ‘expeditionary' means, he might say to you, ‘Well, it's living in a forward operating base, sleeping on a cot, three squares a day, and by the way, you might get Häagen-Dazs for dessert in the evening.' Ladies and gentlemen, that is not expeditionary. Expeditionary, to me, means you step off the plank of a ship, or you step off a helicopter, and it's a moonscape. And the sergeant says, ‘Guys, this is home sweet home. Start making something of it.'"
Veterans Update. Sen. James Webb, D-Va., a decorated combat Marine of the Vietnam War, said the need for a new and improved GI Bill was obvious to him soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The author of many best-selling books, Webb is fast becoming better known as the author of a legislative overhaul of veterans educational benefits dubbed the Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Act, signed June 30.
"I saw what was happening after 9/11 in my own family and among friends, and among their friends," Webb told convention delegates. "The operation tempo was so high. People coming out were not having the right kind of shot at the future, given their service. I made a vow that the first piece of legislation I would drop, if I were elected to the United States Senate, would be a bill that gave those who served since 9/11 the same kind of benefits as those who served in World War II."
When told a new GI Bill would simply cost too much, Webb and his supporters disagreed. "Today in the United States, on educational grants based on need, we spend $19 billion - just for grants based on need," Webb said. "With this program, there is one way to get the benefit, and that's honorable service to the country in a time of war. So, if people think this is too generous, have them put a pack on and go out and earn the benefit."
Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., spoke about accomplishments of the 110th Congress to improve the VA health-care system, including a record increase in discretionary spending. He said a major challenge remains, with a Goliath backlog of undecided VA benefit claims. "We've got to get that 800,000 claims back down to zero," he said.
Generosity Abounds. The third annual Legacy Run, which netted more than $535,000 for The American Legion Legacy Scholarship Fund, included contributions of $50,000 from Ohio and $30,000 from New York. Post 593 in Converse, Texas, raised more than $30,000.
More than $185,000 was raised for the National Emergency Fund; of that, the Department of New York brought in $100,000. Another $81,000 was donated to the Child Welfare Foundation, including $75,000 from the Department of Ohio.
Rehbein Elected. Legionnaires elected David K. Rehbein, a retired research metallurgist and U.S. Army Vietnam War veteran, national commander for 2008-2009. A member of Post 37 in Ames, Iowa, Rehbein was sworn in by Past National Commander John H. Geiger.
"There are two words that my campaign has been about, that I've spoken to you about as I've traveled - those two words being ‘pride' and ‘purpose.' You'll continue to hear them because that's really what this organization is about," said Rehbein, who previously has served as chairman of the National Foreign Relations, Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation and Legislative commissions. "That purpose was what World War I vets felt when they came home from Europe 90 years ago, understanding ... that they still needed to stand beside their comrades because their comrades needed them - just as our comrades need us now."
National Adjutant Robert W. Spanogle, who has worked for The American Legion for 36 years, as national adjutant since 1981, was named past national commander, effective upon retirement. Spanogle thanked Legionnaires for the impact they've made on his life and on the lives of his wife and children.
"You raised them by influence, by your kindness, by your willingness to sit down and talk to them," Spanogle said. "For that, you will be in my heart, and you will be in my memory."
Steve Brooks is senior editor of The American Legion Magazine.