An election for new national commander of The American Legion was looming when current National Commander Fang A. Wong took to the state Aug. 30 to deliver his report to convention delegates. However, it was another election that Wong mentioned during that report.
"The date that I want you to remember is Nov. 6," Wong said. "As American citizens, and especially as Legionnaires, we have a duty to vote. Many men and women – indeed, our comrades – have died to protect this right.
"We choose no sides, endorse no candidates and support no political parties. We have Republicans, Democrats and Independents in our ranks and in our leadership. Our founders – including the son of President Theodore Roosevelt – were adamant that The American Legion be nonpartisan. Our agenda is simple: take care of veterans, national defense, our youth and America."
Wong said that while there are struggles facing veterans – citing the VA claims backlog, the unemployment rate and homelessness as examples – it still is a good time to be a member of The American Legion.
"These tough issues... are why we need an American Legion," he said. "We are as relevant as ever, and many of these problems could have been avoided if only our nation's leaders would read and heed our resolutions and legislative testimony."
One of the key roles of the Legion, Wong said, is helping the newest generation of veterans. "We are in a unique position to help the young men and women who are returning from war," he said. "They respect us because we are their fellow veterans and know what they are going through.
"I want all these young men and women to join The American Legion, but the way to do it is not to greet them with a membership application the moment they return home. They are not familiar with our history of service, nor can we expect to be their top priority at this point in their lives. Most young veterans are more interested in job and college applications, than with Legion applications. Membership is our lifeblood, but service still remains our very top priority."
Jobs, education and family are the key to attracting those members, Wong said. He praised the Department of Defense for its Legion-supported efforts to make it easier for veterans with military training to be credentialed in similar fields in their civilian careers. He warned that deep defense cuts could lead to more unemployment.
Wong said that veterans make great students and that the Legion will continue to lobby on their behalf when it comes to education benefits. And Legion programs like The American Legion Legacy Scholarship, Temporary Financial Assistance and the Family Support Network are important in providing for the families of America's servicemembers and veterans.
"These, along with our other great programs, are the foundations that will make the young veterans of today, the Legionnaires of tomorrow," Wong said.
Wong said that by providing service, younger veterans will eventually join. But in bringing new members in, the Legion can't forget about its current members.
"We can, and we must, do better recruiting new members and, most importantly, retaining existing members," he said. "(Direct-Mail Solicitation) is doing fine, but it's the traditional members that stay and participate in our programs."
Wong said he'll always remember his year as national commander.
"This year has been incredibly good to me," he said. "It was humbling to be the national commander on the 10th anniversary of the worst day in American history. As a New Yorker, a retired soldier and a Legionnaire, I will never forget 9/11."