On Nov. 2, 55 Legionnaires from 35 departments graduated from The American Legion National College.
For a week, the students gathered at National Headquarters in Indianapolis to learn more about the Legion's programs, and to complete assignments that included writing a resolution, revitalizing a post and generating new membership ideas.
The students split into five small groups and were assigned a Legion post to represent – an urban, rural or cyber post with anywhere from 30 to 2,400 members. They then tackled their assignments and presented them to the entire class and Headquarters staff.
Each group gave an in-depth presentation on a revitalization plan for their assigned post. Ideas on how to recognize new members included a "welcome packet" with brochures and resources on Legion programs and benefits available to veterans, sending a "thank you" letter for becoming part of the Legion Family, and hosting an initiation ceremony.
As for ways to retain and generate members, each group agreed on the importantance of post audits, finding out what communication resources are in place and what are needed, conducting joint meetings with local Sons squadrons and Auxiliary units on how to increase membership, and reaching out by phone to members who did not renew their membership in the past two years.
Dennis Radcliffe of Montebello, Calif., said he and many other local Legionnaires wear a "Did you serve?" pin on their ball caps or shirts and carry packets containing business cards, membership applications and coupons for free dinners at their post, Post 496. All of it goes in a small Ziploc bag that fits in a pocket or Legion cap.
Another assignment was to create a 20-minute presentation on any aspect of the Legion. One group's presentation addressed the three Rs of membership: retention, recruitment and reconnection.
For retention, Michelle Aaron, a member of Post 979 in Bartonville, Ill., reminded students that being a Legionnaire "is an investment in our brothers and our sisters," one that means ensuring members stay and encouraging them to get involved with their post and its programs.
George Blackard, a member of Post 117 in Billings, Mont., fired up Legionnaires for the monumental task of meeting national's goal of 3.3 million members by 2019.
"Members are not numbers," Blackard said. "They are assets. They are assets to our posts, to our departments and to The American Legion as a whole.
"When I see someone wearing a military shirt or hat I like to ask them leading questions that give me the information that I want to know. That way, I can get to my hook, which is ‘Let me tell you what The American Legion can do for you.' I'm not asking them to be a member right there. I'm asking, ‘How can I help you and show you what we do?' It takes action to get reaction."
Other presentation topics included women veterans' issues and needs, the Legion's Temporary Financial Assistance program and public relations resources available for posts. Mark Sutton of Eaton Rapids, Mich., and his group simplified the Legion's PR Toolkit by presenting quick, effective tips to help posts increase local awareness for membership recruitment.
Sutton used tips he learned during last summer's American Legion National Convention in Indianapolis, where a local newspaper explained how Legion posts can get noticed by editors and other media.
"The reporter told us to use pictures and videos because they want to see the human side of things," Sutton said. "The key to making a compelling story is to make it local and unique and show how it affects the community. When emailing newspaper staff, target the feature or news editor, make the subject line compelling, and place the press release in the body of the email and not as an attachment."
Students also learned about the resolution writing process from Library Director Howard Trace, who encouraged the class to reference the Legion's Digital Archive (archive.legion.org), which houses resolutions submitted over the past 10 years. Group's presented and defended their resolution during a mock district convention, over which National Commander James E. Koutz presided by calling on all students to simultaneously vote on passing the resolutions.
These included adding a field in the Legion's database to track gender so that the Legion can better identify and address women veterans' needs; eliminating delimiting dates for the Montgomery and Post-9/11 GI bills — the Legion has a position on the matter in Resolution 83 —; and directly transferring Direct Membership Solicitation members from national rolls to local posts.
One resolution did pass, urging the Legion to continue supporting its "Service to God and Country" program.
Past National Commander and Legion College Chancellor Butch Miller offered the class motivational remarks about their ideas and resolutions.
"Every one of those ideas and resolutions that you expressed are good," he said. "If it's a good idea, if you have the passion and if you feel like it's the right thing to do, then don't let people shut you down. If it's good for the Legion and you have a passion, go for it.
"If you don't have people with passion, then we wouldn't be having these conversations or classes, and you probably wouldn't belong to The American Legion because it would have died a long time ago."
During a graduation ceremony, all 55 students received a Legion College diploma, pin and coin, along with advice from Koutz about the knowledge they gained in the program.
"I want you to remember my slogan, ‘Every Day is Veterans Day,'" he said. "Think about our veterans and go back home and tell the people at your post, districts and departments what you learned here this week. Don't keep it inside you.
"Public relations is a great thing for this organization, so we need to get out and tell about the things we do, the great programs The American Legion has."
Following the ceremony, the college's impact on students was evident in words of thanks, the exchange of business cards and many handshakes.
"If anyone is planning on taking a leadership position in their department or post level, there's a wealth of information to learn (at Legion College)," said Gail Galich, adjutant of Post 180 in Highland, Ind. "I enjoyed the camaraderie of our fellow veterans, hearing the wealth of knowledge everyone has within themselves, and learning about the resolution process and how they become written laws for our organization."