The government shutdown may be over, but the Legion's work is far from done.
That was the sentiment that overwhelmed the final session of the 2013 Fall Meetings, which ended Thursday on the morning after President Obama signed a late-night bill passed by Congress to raise the debt ceiling and send federal employees back to work.
Brett Reistad, National Legislative Commission chairman, reflected on the compromise and the Legion's role in bringing it about during an impromptu speech before National Executive Committeemen and other Legion officials. Reistad said the Legion should be proud of its work in influencing Congress to find common ground, but the organization and its members can't afford to rest on their laurels.
"The voice of The American Legion during this crisis has been loud, and we must make it louder," Reistad said. "We need a Legionnaire in every Congressman's ear everywhere.... We can't allow government to use American veterans as pawns in their political games."
The topic was also addressed by National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger during his closing remarks for the NEC sessions. Dellinger expressed similar thoughts about the compromise: that the Legion and veterans should be proud that they forced government officials to work through their impasse, but they should not stop here.
"It is no exaggeration to believe that veterans and The American Legion made the ultimate difference in this resolution," Dellinger said. "No examples of shutdown travesties resonated with the public like the images of World War II veterans being denied access to their memorial and military families being denied benefits after their loved ones made the supreme sacrifice in Afghanistan."
But, Dellinger warned, the resolution that Congress has reached will only fund the federal government until mid-January. Time is still of the essence, he said.
"Let's keep that energy going that we have been using to get the government to re-open the last few weeks and re-channel it," Dellinger said. "Let's transfer those efforts to persuading our leaders to end sequestration and properly fund defense. Let's also put that energy into recruiting new members into our organization and renewing existing members.
"What better rationale can you give someone for joining our organization than by telling them that only a strong and unified voice for veterans can keep America's politicians from ignoring the needs of those who have actually sacrificed to keep us free?"
The final session's other highlight came when Past National Commander James E. Koutz approached the podium with a special donation that he was given for Operation Comfort Warriors - the program that he focused on raising funds for during his tenure. Koutz presented a glass jar full of dollar bills and loose change, all of which came from three elementary school-aged girls in Missouri who smashed their piggy banks and gave the contents to Koutz as a donation to OCW. The three girls' father is stationed in Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.
Moved by the girls' youthful goodwill, Koutz chipped in $100 of his own money.
"There might not be $100 in here, but we can consider this donation from both of us," Koutz said.