The 95th National Convention of The American Legion in Houston provided 2012-2013 National Commander Jim Koutz a platform to both thank his fellow veterans and admonish the federal government.
Nearly 10,000 Legionnaires gathered in the nation's fourth-largest city, where Koutz proudly announced a record-breaking fundraising effort for Operation Comfort Warriors (OCW), which provides comfort items and recreation for U.S. troops recovering from wounds and illnesses. For federal leaders at every level, he had a more stern announcement: "Houston, we have a problem!"
OCW, the commander's marquee fundraising project, received over $1.1 million in donations – much of which poured in at the convention – during Koutz's year in charge. Last spring, when his original goal of $500,000 was about to be reached, he raised the bar to $750,000. Legionnaires responded by more than doubling the original goal. "Your generosity exceeded even my expectations," he told the crowd.
While OCW proved to be a success, automatic federal budget cuts under sequestration are "failing our troops ... failing veterans ... and failing the American people," Koutz said. He explained that the fault is bipartisan and shared by Congress and the administration alike.
Koutz told attendees that TRICARE, military pensions, benefits and services for veterans must not be compromised by sequestration. He argued that benefits and quality-of-life programs, including the Post-9/11 GI Bill, can fuel economic recovery. "Time doesn't allow me to even list the multitudes of CEOs, senators, doctors and ordinary Americans who told us they owe their success to the education and other benefits obtained by what has been called the greatest legislation (the GI Bill) ever passed by Congress."
To that point, the convention included the first American Legion Economic Summit – two days of workshops, hiring events and panel discussions that helped hundreds of servicemembers, veterans and their families along their career paths.
Members of the National Security and Foreign Relations commissions took a road trip to Galveston to tour U.S. Coast Guard operations there and learned that sequestration is reducing cruising hours by up to 25 percent. "Sequestration and the budget malaise that we're facing in Washington is affecting units at the very basic operational level," National Security Commission Chairman Mike Schlee said after the tour.
The convention also offered an opportunity to start rolling out plans for the Legion's centennial, which Koutz said presents a golden opportunity: "What better way to mark The American Legion centennial than with an all-time high in
membership? It is an ambitious goal, and it won't happen if we don't bust our tails recruiting and retaining members ... The eligible members are out there. We just need to sign them up."
And, he added, "If people ask you for a reason to join, tell them you are inviting them to a holiday party. The holiday is Veterans Day. And as I have been saying all year, every day is Veterans Day."
To see full coverage of The 95th National Convention: http://www.legion.org/convention