Be the One shines the light at MCON

The American Legion’s Be the One mission was on full display on the first day of the inaugural MCON conference on Veterans Day in Las Vegas.

“This is the No. 1 initiative The American Legion is focusing on, and there’s a reason for that,” said Waco Hoover, a co-founder of MCON and Be the One chairman. “The one thing our generation could do for servicemembers is figuring out how to dramatically reduce the suicide rate. Every generation has something that it is known for, an indelible mark that it leaves on the community. And I would love nothing more than for ours to be this.”

Hoover, a Marine Corps veteran, said the Be the One presence at MCON is an example of leveraging the Legion’s primary mission to a broader audience. The goal is to increase awareness of the veterans suicide rate, reducing the stigma related to mental health treatment and empowering everyone to take the appropriate action when a veteran’s life is at risk.

“A core tenet of Be the One is having a presence at industry events, not just MCON,” he said. “We already do it through our partnership with INDYCAR. And we are going to do it with other large-scale events. While we are focused on the military, this is not limited to just a military crisis. This is an American crisis that affects all people.”

The American Legion is a founding partner of MCON, held at the Expo World Market Center in Las Vegas.

“This is designed to be a celebration of military culture,” said Hoover, an American Legion member. “Our goal is to bring together the military community for a big, epic weekend celebration.”

The three-day conference included panel discussions, organizations catering to veterans and their families, and physical fitness opportunities.

Hoover and Cindy McNally appeared on a panel titled “Be the One: Stopping Veteran Suicide and Ending the Stigma.”

The topic has special meaning for McNally, who lost her husband of 25 years to suicide in 2007. He was a Naval Academy graduate and Marine F-4 pilot. An Army veteran, McNally is the CEO and president of Irreverent Warriors, a group of veterans and active-duty servicemembers dedicated to healing by bringing people out of isolation.

The first day kicked off with a silkies hike led by Irreverent Warriors, which included lunch hosted by American Legion Post 8. A group of veterans and servicemembers donned silkies, combat boots and rucks for the casual four-mile roundtrip.

“You limit isolation, you limit suicide,” McNally said. “I’ve lived with the wake of devastation that suicide leaves behind. People talk about awareness all the time. And they talk about prevention a lot of times, too. But people don’t ever hear about the wake of destruction and devastation that is left behind. The more you know about the aftermath, the more of a catalyst you can be for prevention.”

McNally, a member of American Legion Post 447 in Round Rock, Texas, has seen Irreverent Warriors grow.

“The first silkies hike (in 2016) was supposed to be a one-and-done event,” she recalled. “But it was so powerful for everyone who participated that day that they took it back to their hometowns and it became a movement.”

Now, about 80 Irreverent Warriors hikes take place across the nation and are expanding overseas, including one next year at Omaha Beach for the 80th anniversary of D-Day and one the Legion sponsored last April in Indianapolis. Regardless of the location of the hike, it builds camaraderie among participants.

“You may show up not knowing anybody, but by the end of the day, you are going to be family,” she said.

Among highlights of other panels on the first day:

• “Honoring the Past, Present and Future of Service: the Global War on Terrorism Memorial Foundation.” A panel provided an update on the project to create an inclusive memorial dedicated to those who served and their families during the Global War on Terrorism.

“My ‘why’ is you guys and creating a memorial to honor your service,” said Michael “Rod” Rodriguez, president and CEO of the foundation. “I am talking about the brave men and women that stepped forward. I am honoring the best of this nation, all of you.”

The site in the nation’s capital was approved earlier this year. Next up is approval of the design, which is planned for the summer of 2024, followed with a groundbreaking by 2025 and having the project completed by 2027. Rodriguez talked about the memorial as a previous guest on this episode of the Legion’s Tango Alpha Lima podcast.

• “Women at War and Why it Matters.” Military Women's Memorial President Phyllis Wilson, who served 37 years in the Army, and Amy Forsythe, Marine and Navy veteran, covered a wide range of topics. They traced contributions of women veterans from World War I through the war on terrorism.

During WWI, Gen. John Pershing needed switchboard operators in the field. More than 200 women fluent in English and French answered the call. “These women took between 5 and 10 seconds to make a connection,” Wilson said. “It took men, trained the same, to make those connections in 50 to 55 seconds. How many lost connections never got through? Gen. Pershing said they shortened the length of World War I by one year.”

It's stories like these that could inspire the next generation of women servicemembers.

“What we want to see is more women joining the military,” said Forsythe, host of The American Legion Be the One podcast. “We need to look to the next generation of leaders. It’s so critical right now. We need to share these stories to inspire these women.”

“Unfiltered with the VA.” Terrence Hayes, a press secretary with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), talked about the department’s ongoing efforts to support veterans. Hayes, a retired Army combat veteran, said that VA wants to ensure consistent outcomes for veterans regardless of where they file their claim or who handles it.

Hayes cited an example that one veteran may have a positive experience in one VA while another veteran with a similar claim may not experience the same quality of service at a different clinic.

“It’s a tricky situation,” he said. “We have to do a better job at educating our adjudicators when it comes to the claims process. We are actively working to clean that up because the president is demanding it and we have to do better for our veterans.”

“Own Your Path: Eliminating the Narrative of the Broken Veteran.” The panel offered several recommendations for transitioning servicemembers. Among them: find a mentor, determine your priorities and involve the entire family.

Samantha Domingo, whose husband served in the Air Force for 17 years, said that made the difference in keeping her family together. “Transition as a family, bring in your spouse, and your kids, too. Give yourself grace. You won’t regret it,” said Domingo, a talent strategist at Lockheed Martin Space.

Looking into the future, Hoover sees the inaugural MCON as a launching point.

“Our goal is — and has always been — to create the largest celebration of military culture,” he said, adding that future MCONs will be in Las Vegas around Veterans Day. “It’s really special to have The American Legion, Be the One supporting this experience. There is so much room to grow. We’re just thrilled that The American Legion sees and believes in this vision.”