A musical, theatrical journey through time, back to the origins of The American Legion – including a personal exchange across generations, from one Roosevelt to another, and multiple observations about the organization’s impact – opened the 100th American Legion National Convention general session Tuesday in Minneapolis.
Thousands of veterans and their families were escorted back to the World War I era by music, dance and a dramatic monolog by Troupe America, which featured a re-enactor who portrayed Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., a pivotal founder of the organization. Roosevelt Jr., retraced his own wartime experience and his passion to start a veterans organization while still stationed in Europe after the armistice of 1918. He reminded the crowd of the Legion founders’ belief in a well-prepared, educated and proud America propelled by the Preparedness Movement that rose up in defiance to U.S. policy of isolationism prior to the nation’s entry into World War I. Much of that movement was influenced by former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, who encouraged his sons to serve their nation as citizens and as soldiers alike. “I did what he taught us to do – to carve out a place in history, put performance above prestige, be responsible and always do what’s best for the good of the whole country, not just yourself,” the re-enactor shared with the crowd.
Such was one founding value of the organization that turns 100 next March. Tuesday’s program also illustrated how the World War I generation was “inspired by a desire to make America strong – during times of war and of peace, for the good of all. That vision built The American Legion’s legacy … Today, a new vision is coming into focus, led by new generations of veterans, including – I am delighted to say – my own grandson.”
Theodore Roosevelt IV, chairman of The American Legion’s 100th Anniversary Honorary Committee, then took the stage and saluted the man portraying his grandfather, the president’s son who went on after helping form The American Legion to earn the Medal of Honor in Normandy, France, during World War II. “(My grandfather) could not place a period on his service – a period that might leave the men who returned home without comfort and aid. He knew their service demanded more of all of us; it demanded that we remember our veterans and their families – with concrete action, concrete action that does not falter, that does not waiver, that is not subject to the whims of politics – that belongs to neither party and to no ambition other than memory and duty. And that, I am very proud to say, is the heart and soul of The American Legion, now entering its second tour of duty, its second hundred years.”
“Legacy and vision – we took that as the theme of the 100th anniversary when we began planning for this centennial,” said American Legion Past National Commander David K. Rehbein, chairman of the Legion’s 100th Anniversary Observance Committee, before introducing Roosevelt IV and members of his honorary committee: Vietnam War combat nurse Diane Carlson Evans, Olympic gold medalist Jamie Corkish, former NBC Vice President Val Nicholas and international affairs consultant and educator Susan Eisenhower.
“Our legacy was formed from a vision,” Rehbein said. “Now it is time for us to form a new vision and a new legacy.”
Roosevelt IV lined out the honorary committee’s key priorities – strengthening relationships with post-9/11 generation veterans groups, demanding a better VA health-care system, improving career opportunities for veterans and their families and “giving voice to the Legion’s vital mission to improve treatment of (post-traumatic stress disorder) and (traumatic brain injury), reducing dependency on prescription drugs.”
Roosevelt IV then invited to the podium members of the honorary committee.
Diane Carlson Evans of Helena, Mont., the Vietnam War combat nurse who came home to spearhead a decade-long, Legion-backed effort to install a memorial honoring women who served in the war in Southeast Asia. She explained that volunteerism and good citizenship were expectations in her family and hometown of Buffalo, Minn., where an American Legion citizenship award helped influence her to join the Army and volunteer for combat duty in the heart of wartime. “With citizenship comes responsibility,” she said. “Good citizens are not born that way. They are created.”
Jamie Corkish of Meridian, Idaho, 2002 American Legion Junior Shooting Sports champion, who went on to earn a gold medal with a record-breaking performance in the 2012 Olympics in the 50-meter women’s rifle competition. “The most amazing thing about winning a medal is the time you get to spend on the podium,” she told the crowd. “It’s emotional … to hear the national anthem and to see the Stars and Stripes rising high. But for me, that emotion came from all those who had an influence on my shooting career, my family and coaches, and people who supported me all the way, including the many veterans of The American Legion. The medal I brought home wasn’t just for me. It was for me to share with the people of the United States of America. I will forever be grateful to all the men and women who not only served this country but then chose to give back to their communities, through youth organizations.” Following her retirement from competitive shooting, Corkish has mentored young shooters herself and has taught gun and hunter safety programs.
Val Nicholas, a former NBC News vice president who is now pursuing a new television production business opportunity, who became a paid-up-for-life American Legion member and service officer who volunteered to help veterans with their VA claims and questions. “To serve means putting the interests of others above your own,” Nicholas said. “I was a service officer for many years at Post 1 in Leonia, N.J., and I helped a lot of our brothers and sisters get their rightful benefits. When it comes to service, I always say you can’t help everybody. But you can help somebody. You can’t save everybody. But you can save somebody. And you can’t serve everybody, but you can damn well go down trying to do that. That’s why I never quit. And that’s why I have this card that says I am paid up for life (in The American Legion) and I will continue to do it for life. So, in closing about service, I’d like to propose a toast: here’s to us and those like us. Damned few like us, we few – we happy few – in the greatest service organization on this planet. The American Legion is still serving America. Why? Because we raised our hands and said we would protect our nation. And we also said we would never leave anybody behind.”
Susan Eisenhower, educator, author, international policy consultant and granddaughter to former President and Supreme Allied Commander-Europe Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, a Kansas Legionnaire. Eisenhower spoke from her heart about how impressed she was to hear the stories of convention award recipients and to see the history of the Legion come alive in Minneapolis. “There is no question that this institution has become one of the most influential advocates of veterans in our country, and how moved I was by the story of Ted Roosevelt’s grandfather… the vision he had and the tenacity he had to get it started.” Eisenhower also told the crowd how important it was to her that The American Legion stood by her family in the redesign of a forthcoming new Eisenhower Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. “Behind us all the way was The American Legion. The original design, which was rather extraordinary, was all about Ike. I can tell you my grandfather never thought of anything he did as being about himself. It was always for others. And the family led a rather noisy campaign, I would say, to try to refashion this memorial that would be more reflective of his approach to life. What we so appreciated was The American Legion standing with my family during a very difficult time. Nothing is more difficult than agreeing on historical memory.” The new design, with a backdrop of the Normandy beaches during peacetime, features Eisenhower speaking to his troops before the D-Day invasion and as president consulting with his advisers. “Ike was a great leader. I am humbled by my relationship to him and the fact that I knew him so well, but how much happier he will be to be standing in Washington against a backdrop of Normandy in peacetime, surrounded by the people he counted on in combat, to make our country a better place. I know what it is like to have The American Legion as an ally. And I just can’t thank you enough.”
“I appreciate the opportunity to play some small role in the great story of The American Legion,” Roosevelt IV said in conclusion. “It is a story that belongs to all of you because it is the fruit of so many labors, so much good will and tenacity… I am confident that grandfather and his fellow veterans of the Great War would be pleased today.”