The 2017 American Legion College class had an opportunity Wednesday night to sit down with National Commander Denise H. Rohan in a casual setting and ask her questions – both professional and personal.
Many of Rohan’s answers empowered the students to continue their efforts to grow as leaders within the organization and to ensure all eligible Legion veterans know they can be a part of the organization.
“Having this forum with National Commander Rohan was great because it gave us a focus and a new mission moving forward,” said Lisa McPhee of Post 50 in Massachusetts.
The following are a few questions that were asked by Legion College attendees with answers provided by Rohan.
Q: How did you come to the conclusion that you would become The American Legion national commander?
A: It was really a matter of having greatness thrusted upon me. I am so happy with the work that goes on in our American Legion posts across this nation. I was doing the work of the Legion and then slowly as our mentors, who were World War II and Korean vets, they spent so much time teaching us about The American Legion, and teaching us just how we touch the community, what a difference we make in the lives of the youth of our nation. Just all the great work that the Legion does.
Then somebody said they needed help at the district level and so I became district adjutant. And then district commander. Somebody saw me; somebody saw the work that I was doing in Wisconsin and they put me into a leadership position here as the National Membership and Post Activities Committee chairman. It was quite an honor and at that time I thought, “I’ve been given a job and I’m going to do the best I can at it.” Because as I was growing up my parents always said, “Whatever job they give you, do the best you can.” It was never in my mind at that point that I’m going to be national commander someday. It was, “I had a job, I’m going to do the best I can, and I’m going to make a difference in this organization.”
After three years as National Membership and Post Activities Committee chairman, I became chairman of Veterans Employment and Education Committee. It used to be called (Veterans Employment and) economics, but I think they saw my college transcripts and how I did in economics and changed the name.
When the Department of Wisconsin asked about endorsing me for national commander, I didn’t think I was qualified to be a national commander. Because I hold national commanders with such high esteem; I know how hard they work to get to become national commander.
So here I am, doing the best I can, with the knowledge that I have.
When it comes down to it, I look forward to getting back to the grassroots of this organization. Because I really miss spending time with our National Guard families; I miss spending time with my Legion Family in our hometown; I miss how our little hometown post can make a difference. But this year I hope to make a difference for the entire organization.
Q: How do you manage time between your personal life, job and The American Legion?
A: I’ve always heard the saying that if you want something done, ask a busy person. And that’s pretty much what it is. I worked for the University of Wisconsin and my boss believed in what (The American Legion) did so she would let me flex my hours so I could go to Legion events and take care of things. We just made it fit. We were also very fortunate that our son grew up in The American Legion. Our son had so many grandmas and grandpas within our Legion Family that it was amazing. By him being welcomed by our Legion Family, that made a difference also.
Q: What’s a best management practice for working with veterans of different generations?
A: I went to a post and there was a group of men and I decided to sit down at the table with them. I knew they were uncomfortable that I was sitting at the table with them. Then one of them finally says, “So, what makes you think you’re qualified to be the national commander?” I could have given them any answer in the world, but it wasn’t going to be good for them. And I just said, “Well, they put me in a room with a bunch of grumpy old veterans and I was in there for an hour and a half and I came out alive laughing.”
We’ve grown up in so many different societies that the word honor goes both ways. We talk about honoring those who came before you, but it’s also about honoring the younger veteran. Everybody has served their own role, their own place in history, and all of you have done some amazing things. It goes back to treating each other like you would like to be treated – that’s the golden rule. Give respect, listen to what they’re saying, and ask for their advice.
And spend the time getting to know each other, getting to know that you both have the best interest for this great American Legion Family. When you understand that you all just care, that’s where I see leadership coming in and saying, “We need to do this, and we need your help doing it.” It really comes down to respecting each other.
Q: What do you think the main reason is that younger veterans are not joining The American Legion?
A: People who are currently serving, those who are still in uniform, don’t understand that they are veterans. Those who are currently serving, after one day, they are a veteran. And I think that point doesn’t get necessarily recognized all of the time. So we need to help anyone who is still in uniform to understand that they are a veteran now. And they can join our great family.
You are all busy; you have families to raise and you have jobs to go to. But joining The American Legion means they are part of our numbers, they are part of our legislative push when we want to get something done that’s important. A time will come when they will start to give back as well. Or what I have found to work is invite them to an event with the exact time and place. Don’t just say, “Come to the post.” We need to show them what we do. They need to see us in action.
Q: What has been the high point and low point as national commander?
Q: Every single day I get to meet somebody new, I get to hear their story. That's a high point. The low point? I wish I could get a little more sleep!
Q: You are leading us and this organization so what can we do for you?
A: I say go home and be the best you can be. And I ask you to find people to mentor. Take that special time to find someone that you can pass your knowledge onto. Take that special time to find another veteran to say, “We care about you.” And just share as much as you possibly can.
One of the things I’m pushing is the (free online American Legion) Basic Training course. Get as many people as you possibly can to take that course.
Q: When did you believe in yourself that you could be national commander?
A: Two years ago. A team of past national commanders sat down with me, and it’s still nerve-racking to wear the hat of The American Legion. To be put in the leadership position, to have the opportunity, it has been absolutely amazing. But honestly, when Wisconsin came to me and said they wanted to endorse me for national commander, I thought there’s no way I could ever do that job. But there’s people who had faith in me.
At convention (in Reno, Nev.) when I was voted in as national commander, I thought, “Ok, I can do this job because I was taught when you’re given a job you do the best you can.”
So here I am. National commander of The American Legion.