It may not have been his official homecoming, but American Legion National Commander Brett Reistad certainly felt in familiar surroundings when he delivered the keynote address at the reunion of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment in Arlington, Va., on Sept. 29.
A veteran of the Presidential Salute Battery of the legendary Old Guard, not only did Reistad complete his Army tour at Fort Myer, Va., he made the area his post-military home, retiring as a lieutenant with the Fairfax County Police Department and eventually serving as the commander of the American Legion Department of Virginia.
“The one common ingredient or bond that all Legionnaires share is that we are military veterans,” Reistad told the Old Guard Association. “It’s a place where a veteran of the Old Guard, such as you and I, could work side by side with a retired Air Force officer or a member of the Coast Guard. From the beginning, Legionnaires have checked their rank at the door. Founder Teddy Roosevelt Jr., insisted that it be that way. By World War II, Teddy Junior would become a brigadier general – but he wanted The American Legion to view all of its members equally – whether you were a general or a private, a Legionnaire is a Legionnaire. And also, a veteran is a veteran.”
Reistad pointed out that wartime veterans could always join The American Legion regardless of race, religion or gender – which was considered very progressive in 1919 when the military was still 29 years away from integrating and women were still prohibited from voting for president.
“I think about that as we look forward to another 100th anniversary – the centennial of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 2021,” Reistad said. “They are known ‘Only to God’ but forgotten by no one in this room. And who knows what race or religion comprise the remains in that tomb? More importantly, who cares? The only thing we know or really care about is that those remains belong to an American hero who sacrificed everything for this country of ours.”
While Reistad is believed to be the first American Legion national commander to have served in the Old Guard, The American Legion has a long history of support for the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment and its hallowed mission at Arlington National Cemetery. When The American Legion turned 50, the organization raised $200,000 to permanently light the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the amphitheater Temple Façade at Arlington. More recently, The American Legion bestowed its highest award, the Distinguished Service Medal, to the Old Guard in 2016.
While acknowledging the 100th anniversary of the World War I armistice and the current centennial celebration of The American Legion, Reistad said that honor has even longer legacy. “One hundred years is a long time. More than the average life span. But legacies of honor last much longer. And that is why we continue to watch over and meticulously care for the hallowed tombs, the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery and burial places of our fallen around the world.”
“It matters not which war our heroes fought in,” Reistad later added. “Arlington is full of reminders that America has always had men and women who were willing to serve a cause greater than themselves. And for that we will always be grateful.”
During the reunion, Reistad became the newest veteran of the Old Guard to be awarded the National Infantry Association’s Order of St. Maurice, an honor given for “loyal support of the infantry…and demonstrating selfless support embodied by the American Infantryman.”