Standing in front of The American Legion National Executive Committee in Indianapolis on Oct. 12, National Commander Vincent J. “James” Troiola shared the news of another suicide by a current or former U.S. servicemember: that of a Texas National Guardsman who took his own life while serving in Operation Lone Star.
“I wish I could say it was an isolated incident, but we all know it is not,” Troiola said of the suicide. “Last year (Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin) said ‘Mental health is health.’ Period. The stigma needs to end. If we are going to stop suicide, it is crucial that we look at this issue much differently than prior generations. If we wait for someone to make an attempt before we reach out, there is a very good chance that it will be too late.”
That’s where Buddy Checks and “Be the One” come into play. “Buddy Checks work,” Troiola said. “We have heard from Legionnaires who credit buddy checks with saving their lives. I don’t care what it’s called. Peer-support, wellness checks or something else. It’s looking out for your fellow veterans. I encourage the military to do the same with all who are on duty.
“If you have military bases in your department, visit them. Don’t make it a one-and-done, but establish a continuing relationship. The same goes for Guard and Reserve centers. The statistics that VA use each year to count veteran suicides do not include active-duty, so the situation far exceeds the 17-a-day number we often hear.”
Troiola shared that the “Be the One” initiative now has a website that provides resources available to share by American Legion Family members in their communities throughout the nation.
“Veterans value courage and it takes courage to ask for help,” Troiola said. “We must be proactive. Ask and encourage veterans to seek help before they pass a point of no return. We need to do more to prevent veterans from taking their lives. We owe them more. We owe their loved ones more.
“Very few of us are trained counselors or mental health professionals. But we are capable of listening, referring and following up. Our ‘Be the One’ message is resonating. I have met Legionnaires and relatives of veterans who have told me they attempted or contemplated suicide. Our Buddy Checks and support has made a difference. It must continue.”
Shifting his attention to the recent hurricanes that have devastated Florida and Puerto Rico, Troiola noted that the Legion Family again has been at the center of relief efforts in those areas.
“Our posts, squadrons, units and departments always come through,” he said. “Your generosity is amazing. On a national level, we have our (National Emergency Fund) and (Temporary Financial Assistance) to deliver grants to help with emergency lodging and other immediate needs.”
But those needs will continue as residents of those areas continue to need assistance. “Visit legion.org often for updates. A recent article there listed some of our posts in Niceville, Navarre, Avon Park and Punta Gorda, Fla., that are serving as collection points and relief centers,” he said. “Most useful is water and non-perishable or canned goods. The Department of Florida also has its own Hurricane Relief Fund and Disaster Preparedness Committee.
“Unlike Florida, you can’t just drive a truck of supplies to Puerto Rico. The people there were still not fully recovered from Maria and recent earthquakes when Fiona hit. So please keep that department in mind when you are offering assistance from your departments.”
Troiola also urged Legionnaires to cultivate relationships with servicemembers before they transition into the civilian world – but do so in a way that shows a desire to assist, not to recruit membership.
“A lot of military officials are leery of us at first. They think we want to come on base for a membership drive. That’s not it at all,” he said. “We cannot properly advocate for their needs before Congress and the White House if we do not know what those needs are. We do know from media reports that some of the barracks are in deplorable condition. Mold, faulty air conditioning and overcrowding has been an issue at several installations.
“This is 2022. Our troops deserve better. Just because Vietnam veterans had it rough does not mean that today’s servicemember should have to live in the same unrenovated facilities. If we do not advocate for better living conditions for our military personnel and their families, than we may as well not advocate for anything.”
When visiting a military installation, Troiola said it’s important to let those serving know they are appreciated. “We can go on base and just thank them for their service,” he said. “Maybe deliver a few gift cards to troops that could use them. Sporting goods and video games are always popular in military communities.”
Troiola reminded Legionnaires about his initiative he unveiled during the national convention in Milwaukee: V.E.T.S., or Veterans, Education, Teamwork and Sponsor. “Through this concept aimed at those who served (veterans), training our members (education), working together (teamwork), mentoring (sponsor) and befriending all of our members, we will become a better and stronger American Legion,” he said. “Posts that achieve 90 percent retention this membership year will receive a national commander’s V.E.T.S. pin. Those that achieve 95 percent will receive a V.E.T.S. coin. Membership Excellence pins will go to posts that recruit five members from expired rosters. If post excellence is achieved, the post will receive an autographed national commander’s license plate. Departments will also receive numbered V.E.T.S. coins to be given to the Legionnaire of their choice, who has gone beyond for membership.”
Troiola said that his early tenure as national commander has been met with amazing hospitality during his official department visits. “I have had many Legionnaires express to me the pride that they have in their post and what they are doing for their local communities,” he said. “The posts that I enjoy visiting the most are the ones that are often overlooked. They are in small communities and may not have hosted national commanders before. They may not get the attention of the larger metropolitan posts, but they are making an impact.”
During his report, National Legislative Commission Chairman Daniel Seehafer praised Legionnaires for their lobbying efforts in gaining passage of the Sergeant Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act. Legion Family members sent out more than 34,000 messages to members of Congress in support of the legislation, prompting Seehafer to say it was “a crucible in which we reasserted our standing as America’s most powerful voice for our veterans.” But, he added, “that number should have been 340,000.”
Seehafer also urged members of the NEC to go back to their departments and find Legionnaires willing to both serve on and be active within the Legion’s National Legislative Council, a 535-member group designated to serve as direct liaisons to every member of the U.S. Congress. He said only around 100 of the members have been regularly active.
“There’s an application on our website,” Seehafer said. “The point of this council is to make those communications to the people in Congress. This has to change.”
(Click here for more information on the National Legislative Council and how to apply).
In other business:
· Membership & Post Activities Committee Chairman Jay Bowen stressed the need not only to recruit new members into the organization, but to keep those already a part of the Legion’s membership. “Once we recruit (new members) … we must work diligently to give them cause to continue their membership,” he said. “Recruiting veterans into The American Legion is about making a promise to take care of them. Retaining them in The American Legion is delivering on that promise.”
· The NEC passed Resolution 24, which states the Legion will “seek and support any legislative or administrative proposal providing Post 9/11 GI Bill eligibility for National Guard and reserve service”. “Under the law as currently written, National Guard and reserve servicemembers only accrue GI Bill entitlements when called on active duty under federal orders,” Veterans Employment & Education Commission Chairman James LaCoursiere said. “When National Guard and reserve servicemembers are activated under state orders, they do not accrue eligibility for GI Bill benefits. Every servicemember that dons the American uniform, regardless of what administrative authority they were mobilized under, deserves the ability to count each day toward their education benefits.”
· American Legion Auxiliary National President Vickie Koutz presented Troiola with a $10,000 donation to the Veterans & Children Foundation on behalf of the Auxiliary.