Laying out the challenges facing America's veterans and the faith that they can be overcome, Indiana Legionnaire James E. Koutz was unanimously elected national commander of The American Legion during the 94th National Convention in Indianapolis. And though there also are many challenges facing the organization, Koutz is convinced the Legion can handle anything that comes before it.
"The challenges that lay before The American Legion are many and serious," said Koutz, a member of Boonville, Ind., Post 200 and a U.S. Army Vietnam veteran. "But in that regard, we are no different than the men and women who came before us. I am no different than the men who have stood in my place for 94 years.
"They faced inadequate medical care for veterans, long waits for earned benefits to be paid, the absence of jobs and educational opportunities. And they struggled to convince the nation that those returning from the horrors of war deserved the best the nation has to offer. I have heard that the defenders of liberty always should be among the first to enjoy its blessings. I endorse that thought, but I am certain that we, as a nation, have not done as good a job as we can to see that it's true."
Koutz said that helping change that is nothing new to The American Legion. But there are specific areas today that the Legion needs to be most vocal about to care for the nation's veterans and servicemembers.
"It includes opposing automatic cuts to the Defense and VA budgets that will come about if the federal government continues to fail to meet its moral and budgetary obligations," he said. "As your commander, I will fight sequestration unfailingly and unceasingly. And I will make sure that we hold our representatives accountable for appropriate measures to prevent it."
Koutz — who was sworn in by American Legion Past National Commander Joe Frank — also addressed VA's growing backlog of claims, saying it threatens the well-being of hundreds of thousands of veterans. "We have offered solutions," he said. "We have been heard. And still the backlog persists. This is the year we break the logjam."
Koutz called for veterans preference to be enforced, that veteran-owned businesses get no less than 3 percent of all federal contracts, and that Legionnaires reach out to veterans attending college.
"In every one of these instances, the key phrase is ‘We can,'" he said. "I believe we can do anything we set our minds to. That was my message as a candidate, and it will continue to be my message: hope, possibility and achievement."
Koutz said that while Legionnaires do work hard at membership, they need to get the word out about the good work the organization is doing. Changing that will benefit both sides, he said.
"Knowing what kind of people we are will encourage your neighbors and fellow citizens to entrust their children to our programs — to our flag education efforts, the Oratorical contests and Boys State programs," he said. "What we do for young people has a direct impact on the kind of adults they will become."
He also called on Legionnaires to use the L.E.A.D. (Leadership, Education and Development) training program — offered by national staff — to educate new members about the Legion's Four Pillars.
"That is the sense in which I will go forward from this place to speak on your behalf, to act in your best interests, and to devote every day to the welfare of our comrades," Koutz said. "I do that because I believe that in America, every day is Veterans Day. Let us celebrate it."
Koutz — who served in Vietnam with Company C 169th Engineer Battalion and worked for the Amax Coal Company for 21 years before retiring in 1995 — has held elected and appointed offices in The American Legion at the post, county, district, department and national levels. He was awarded the State of Indiana Council of the Sagamore of the Wabash in 1991 by former Gov. Evan Bayh, and was recognized for outstanding community achievement of Vietnam veterans by President Jimmy Carter.
"I'm excited about the opportunity you've given me," Koutz said. "I'm excited about the future, and I'm excited about The American Legion."
Also elected today were national vice commanders John E. Neylon of Twin Mountain, N.H.; Glenn A. Hickman of Grove City, Ohio; Jeanette Rae of Reno, Nev.; David R. Hall of New Haven, W.Va.; and James Hallie Holland of Aiken, S.C.
National Historian Neil L. Rozier of Raleigh, N.C.; National Sergeant-at-Arms Alfonso Pulido of Griffith, Ind.; and National Chaplain Ronald L. Derrick of Rigby, Idaho were appointed to their positions by Koutz following the close of the national convention.