I recently had the opportunity to participate in an annual tradition for The American Legion's national commander — testifying before a joint session of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans' Affairs. In doing so, I learned something that previous national commanders before me have learned: It's pretty common that one or more senators or representatives praise the commander – either during the hearing or one-on-one following it – for his input. Those members of Congress are appreciative to get information from our System Worth Saving (SWS) reports or our suggestions on improvements to the GI Bill.
It just makes sense for them to listen to us and value our opinion. The Legion is the largest organization of wartime veterans, representing veterans from all areas, backgrounds and eras. We're an organization capable of speaking on behalf of many. And with millions of members, Congress had better listen.
The same dynamic works at the state level. When a Legionnaire phones his local state representative and announces that he's a member of The American Legion, he's no longer just one veteran. He's one veteran capable of rallying the support of many fellow Legionnaires.
Clearly, a strong and diverse membership is essential to our success as an organization. It gives us more boots-on-the-ground to lobby local representatives and support local wounded warriors. It makes our voice louder on Capitol Hill, and it gives us more influence in all congressional circles.
Simply put, membership is our lifeblood. The hard work of our dedicated volunteers and employees make things like SWS a success, but it's our membership numbers that get us before Congress and make them willing to heed our advice. The more members we have, the more reason Congress and lawmakers have to listen to us.
This is why our organization has set a goal to reach an all-time high number of members by 2019 – our centennial. What better way to celebrate our 100-year anniversary than with a voice that is louder than it has ever been? These potential members are out there; an estimated 16 million veterans are eligible for Legion membership, but only 2.4 million actually are members.
The benefits of reaching this goal are twofold. We not only ensure our continued success as an organization, but we enhance our abilities to protect the interests of all veterans, servicemembers and their families. A strong and diverse membership helps us serve as a better and more vocal advocate on their behalf.
We must reach our membership goal. The stakes are high not only for our organization to continue thriving, but for our military community as a whole. The veteran population cannot afford to lose The American Legion as a vocal advocate.
Imagine a world where Congress doesn't hear a crucial SWS report about access problems at VA hospitals, or testimony about the need to allow military training to count for commercial certification in trade fields. Allowing this scenario to play out would not only dishonor the men and women who founded our organization, it would be a disservice to veterans everywhere.
Let's make our voice louder than it has ever been.