Pride and purpose: 2009 National Convention

When David K. Rehbein was elected national commander of The American Legion in August 2008, he said “pride and purpose” would be his motto. Looking back on his year as leader of the nation’s largest veterans service organization, Rehbein easily finds a number of reasons Legionnaires can be proud of the purposes they carried out.

It was a year in which The American Legion stood up against a VA proposal to start bill insurance companies of service-disabled veterans for care they’re supposed to receive at no personal cost. As national media cast a spotlight on the Legion’s opposition to the idea,  Rehbein became a regular guest on national television news programs, and the White House withdrew the plan.

It was also a year in which the Legion took exception to a baseless Department of Homeland Security report that associated the homecomings of U.S. war veterans with a risk for domestic terrorism and right-wing extremism. A swift reaction by Rehbein and the Legion led to an apology from DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and a better working relationship between the Legion and DHS.

From active involvement with the new Post-9/11 GI Bill to a record fundraising year for the Legacy Run, it was a year to proud of, Rehbein said.

“We made sure we upheld the honor of the young men and women serving this country,” he  told thousands of Legionnaires in Louisville, Ky., at the 91st National Convention of The American Legion Aug. 21-27. “We stood up this year. We were counted this year. We showed, I believe, the people of this country that The American Legion has remained true to its principles. That The American Legion, when the time comes, will stand up and say, ‘Sir, that’s a bad idea.’ We need to keep showing them that lesson. This organization, 91 years later, still has thatstrength to stand up and be counted, still has that strength to influence the debate in this country on veterans issues. And I believe, because of who you are, that this organization will still be that way 40 years from now.”

Rehbein cited examples of how the Legion fortified each of its four pillars during the year: Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation, National Security, Americanism, and Children and Youth – and how that can help future membership efforts. “I think the pillars are strong,” Rehbein said. “I think the organization ... is strong enough to keep those pillars upright – strong enough to make those pillars support a lot of the foundation of this country.”

Rehbein praised Legionnaires for their generosity, noting that during the convention alone, more than $570,000 was raised for The American Legion Legacy Scholarship Fund, $92,000 for the National Emergency Fund, $30,000 for the Child Welfare Foundation and $16,000 for Operation Comfort Warriors. And during the convention’s final day, a visibly moved Rehbein thanked Legionnaires for the opportunity to lead the organization. “You gave me this job, and I did the best I could,” he said. “Now it’s our responsibility – all of us – to make next year better. Every year needs to be better than the one before.”

Big Names, Big Words. National security and veterans issues dominated the convention. Speaking on the subjects were some of the biggest names in government. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that trust and a partnership borne of understanding – not simply military might – is needed to quell conflicts and establish rules of law in the Middle East.

“Despite all that’s been done to bring stability to that region, really since the end of World War I, we are still learning about the various cultures that shape the region’s landscape,” Mullen said. “Because understanding takes time and without consistent engagement – a willingness to see things from another’s perspective – there will always be a trust deficit. And where trust is lacking, partnerships falter.

“In Iraq, Prime Minister (Nouri) al-Maliki and the political and military leadership are working on solving their own problems, Iraqis solving Iraqi problems – or in Prime Minister al-Maliki’s own words, ‘building a state on the ruins of dictatorship.’ I myself have made it clear to the Iraqi leaders  we’re leaving. Now is the time to establish the long-term relationships we both need, to be able to continue to help foster a secure Iraq. But the solutions are now largely political and wholly Iraqi.”

The same rules apply in Operation Enduring Freedom, Mullen said.

“The Pakistanis likewise are waging their own war against extremists, for Pakistanis in Pakistan,” Mullen added.  “And in Afghanistan, the war being waged, to defeat al-Qaeda and its extremist allies, is led by an international security force, with Afghans, for Afghans, in Afghanistan. We’ve got to help them. That’s why I ordered the establishment of a Pakistan-Afghanistan coordination cell, inside my own staff, to work exclusively on the issues of that region, to stay engaged ... We must do whatever we can, so that today’s investment produces stability and security and ultimately engenders trust. And I’m talking about more than a military solution. The military piece is really a small part of the equation. What the people of Afghanistan need is rule of law, not the law of armed conflict. We need to help them get to the point where they have a government that delivers at every level.”

Mullen also talked about public opinion regarding the war. “I’ve seen a lot of discussion these days about whether this is a war of choice or a war of necessity,” he said. “I’ve seen public opinion polls saying that a majority of Americans don’t support the effort at all. And I say, ‘Good. Let’s have that debate. Let’s have that discussion. Let’s take a good, hard look at this fight we’re in, what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.’

“I’d rather see us as a nation argue about the war, struggling to get it right, than ignore it. Because each time I go to Dover (Air Force Base) to see the return of someone’s father, brother, mother or sister, I want to know that collectively we’ve done all we can to make sure that sacrifice isn’t in vain.”

Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, received The American Legion’s highest award, the Distinguished Service Medal. Rehbein quoted critics who had questioned Petraeus’ strategies. “Yet, Gen. David Petraeus, the chief advocate of the military troop surge and commander of Multi-National Forces Iraq, refused to share this pessimism,” Rehbein said. “He never lost faith in America’s fighting men and women. He would be the first to tell you that the credit for the success in Iraq belongs to those who served and are still serving over there.”

Petraeus said it was an award he couldn’t accept solely on his own, saying he would accept it only “on behalf of the 235,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast gGuardsmen deployed in the Central Command area of responsibility. “Day after day, on the ground, in the air, and at sea, these courageous and committed troopers perform difficult missions against tough enemies under the most challenging conditions, for our country – and, as those in this room know – for each other.”Petraeus also gave an overview on U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, noting that the number of insurgent attacks in Iraq dropped from 160 per day in June 2007 to below 20 per day in recent months. The planned reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq will go forward, Petraeus said.

“Innumerable challenges remain,” Patraeus explained. “Resilient Sunni and Shia extremists, approaching national elections, lingering ethno-sectarian mistrust, increasing budget pressures, improving but still inadequate levels of basic services, the release of thousands of detainees, the ongoing return of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis displaced by the sectarian violence, and unresolved internal boundary disputes ... Iraq has a tough road ahead. But again, the progress over the past two years has been significant. Needless to say, our troopers are working hard to support our Iraqi partners as they confront their country’s many challenges.”

Complicated challenges also remain in Afghanistan, Petraeus said. “The security trend there in recent years has been a downward spiral in many areas of the country, with levels of violence at record highs in recent weeks in particular. The Taliban and the other elements of the so-called extremist syndicate have, without question, expanded their strength and influence. Our fundamental objective in Afghanistan remains very clear: to ensure that transnational extremists like al-Qaeda are not able to re-establish the sanctuaries that they enjoyed there prior to the 9/11 attacks.

Accomplishing our mission in Afghanistan, though, requires more than just killing or capturing terrorists and extremists; it requires a robust, comprehensive counter-insurgency campaign. And that is exactly what our troopers, along with their Afghan, NATO, and other international partners, are intent on executing.

“Despite important achievements in various areas, given the deterioration in the security situation, an enormous amount of hard work and tough fighting lie ahead in Afghanistan. And reversing the downward trend in security, in particular, will require sustained, substantial commitment from all involved.”

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki gave what he termed a seven-month report of VA and promised to end homelessness among veterans within the next five years. “No one who has served this nation should ever find themselves living without care – and without hope,” he said. “I know that there are never any absolutes in life, but unless we set an ambitious target, we would not be giving this our very best efforts. To do this well, we will have to attack the entire downward spiral that ends in homelessness. We must offer education, jobs, treat depression, fight substance abuse, and offer safe housing. We have to do it all: education, jobs, mental health, substance abuse, housing.”

VA’s backlog of disability claims, which Shinseki says is approximately 400,000, is a high and challenging priority. “In July, we closed out 85,000 claims and received another 89,000 new ones,” he said. “Regardless of how we parse the numbers, there is a backlog, it is too big, and veterans are waiting too long for their checks.

“In April, President Obama charged Defense Secretary (Robert) Gates and me to build a fully interoperable electronic records system that will provide each member of our armed forces a virtual lifetime electronic record that will track them from the day they put on the uniform, through their time as veterans, until the day they are laid to rest ...  For VA, it will revolutionize our claims process – faster processing, higher quality decisions, no lost records, fewer errors. I am personally committed to reducing the processing times of disability claims. We have work to do here.”

Shinseki also pledged to target the more than 15 million veterans who are not enrolled the VA health-care system. “VA will continue reaching out to them to explain our benefits, services, and the quality of our health-care system,” he said. “A major initiative which will expand access is the president’s decision to welcome back some 500,000 Priority Group 8 veterans who lost their entitlements in 2003. We began registering them in July, and we expect 266,000 enrollments this first year, through 2010.

“Five years from now, we intend to be the provider of choice for more of that larger population of 23.4 million veterans – in insurance, in health care, in education, in home loans, in counseling, and in employment.”

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Legionnaires that her department intends to be identified as a resource for preparedness rather than a purveyor of fear. With its disaster-preparedness education programs already in place, “the Legion is in a unique position to help,” she said. Napolitano appealed for the Legion’s assistance in meeting not just threats posed by terrorists, but by weather  and disease, such as the expected outbreak of H1N1, or swine flu, this fall. “The Legion and its Auxiliary (have) been supporters (of our efforts) in the past, and I am asking you to re-energize that participation and that partnership with us,” she saidNapolitano also committed to employing 50,000 veterans at DHS by 2012. Her department hired some 3,000 veterans through the first eight months of 2009 and now employs more than 46,000 – including 2,100 service-disabled veterans. “The men and women of the armed services work tirelessly every day to ensure the safety and security of the American people,” she said. “We are honored by the thousands of veterans working at DHS whose unique experience and extraordinary dedication strengthen the department’s efforts to protect our nation from threats and prepare for disasters.”

Karen Gordon Mills, administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, said her agency is available to help veteran-owned small businesses. As part of the Recovery Act, SBA was able to make billions of dollars in loans with reduced or eliminated fees and federal backing.

“I’m very proud to say that in the first six months of the stimulus, more than 2,500 of these SBA loans have gone to America’s veterans,” she said. “It’s $588 million – well over half a billion dollars – in lending support to veteran entrepreneurs and small business owners. We’re particularly proud of the SBA’s Patriot Express Loan pilot initiative. It is only for the military community – and it has our lowest interest rates.

Under the stimulus, we’ve issued more than 1,200 Patriot Express loans totaling $90 million. And it’s called “Express” for a good reason. After a bank approves a loan, the SBA can often approve the application within 24 hours. This gets you the capital you need ...  when you need it.”

Mills said outreach efforts would continue to target veteran entrepreneurs. “Over the next 90 days, our procurement partners will be part of outreach events around the country. They’ll be matchmaking, helping to put contracts in the hands of small businesses and those owned by veterans, women, and minorities,” she said. “We will encourage veteran-owned businesses to actively market their products and services to those agencies. With both lending and contracting in the Recovery Act ... we will get there. We will put the brakes on this recession ... and we will do it arm in arm with veteran-owned small businesses.” Congressmen at Convention. Legion delegates also heard from two members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs – chairman Bob Filner, D-Calif., and Tim Walz, D-Minn. – as well as Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, chairman of the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee.

Filner drew applause when he said the VA health-care system should not be a part of any national health-care reform program. “They’re going to have to pry the VA health-care system from our cold, dead hands before anything happens ... with health-care reform.”Filner and Edwards called on VA to work to reduce its backlog of benefits claims, while Walz, also a strong veterans advocate, expressed optimism about progress toward a seamless transition for servicemember leaving the military and enteringthe VA health-care system.

“I am optimistic because we’ve got Congress on board, we’ve got the administration on board, and we’ve got two secretaries, Secretary Gates and Secretary Shinseki, on board and who seem committed to working together in an unprecedented way,” Walz said. “We need your help to tell us what our newest veterans need, and to tell us how to do it right. The Legion speaks with the voice of experience and has the vision to propel this to initiative to completion in the very near future.”

Walz, a Legionnaire and retired National Guard sergeant major, said veterans deserve America’s very best effort. “We understand we may never reach perfection,” he said. “But when it comes to taking care of our veterans, it must be our goal.”

The New Leadership. Florida Legionnaire Clarence Hill was elected 2009-2010 commander of The American Legion. Sworn in by Past National Commander Past National Commander John “Jake” Comer, Hill vowed to take on the fight to increase membership in the organization.

“I’ve only been working membership since I retired from the Navy in 1996, and there have only been two years of growth in that time,” Hill said. “Every other year, we’ve lost members. We cannot keep getting smaller and be effective at serving our veterans, nor be successful lobbying Congress. We’ve got to turn this around and put programs in effect that will result in long-term growth for the organization, programs that our successors can build on and make better.”

Reaching out to America’s younger veterans requires forward thinking, Hill said. “We need to ... be more creative in what we offer in our posts and think of some non-traditional uses for them: day care, after-school programs, setting up computer work stations as an Internet café or wiring our posts for wi-fi. Consider hosting adventure activities in which they’re interested,” he said. “Their experiences growing up were far different than what we experienced, and we need to take that into account when dealing with and trying to recruit the youth.”