Upon being elected The American Legion's new national commander on Aug. 27, 2009, at the Legion's 91st National Convention in Louisville, Ky., Clarence Hill gave the following acceptance speech:
Thank you, thank you, thank you for this day and your vote of confidence in electing me your 91st National Commander.
Before I get into my comments, I'd like to do some introductions.
First, my wife, Liz, without whom I would not have had a successful Navy career, and I would not be a Legionnaire before you today. She has been my companion, my sounding board and my confidant for over 35 years now. As you heard, we met in March of 1974 when I was still an ensign, and got married in 1976. She has pinned every rank on me to my retirement as a captain. Most of you have heard the story of how I joined The American Legion. Liz wanted to join the Auxiliary and gave me two choices to establish her eligibility - join the Legion or be deceased. By the time I retired and started getting involved in the Legion, she had been a unit president three times and helped guide my early involvement.
Thank you to my daughter Nicole, her husband David and my granddaughters Kadence and Mckenzie. They are all proud members of the Legion family.
My stepson Jimmie, his fiancée Samantha and granddaughters Amelia and Fionna, and my stepdaughter Sharon and grandson Harold and granddaughter Amanda couldn't be here today, but all are Legion family members, and I am proud of all of them.
Thank you to my post, Atlantic Beach 316, and to my mentor, George Derrick, former NEC for Florida, who has gone on to Post Everlasting. He never missed an opportunity to push me into getting more involved, and I could never say no.
Thank you to Dyke Shannon, good friend and former Department Adjutant for Florida for 29 years, for that nomination speech and all your support through the years. Thank you also to Randy Fisher and Joe Caouette for their seconding speeches. I'm sure we'll see more of them.
Thank you PNC Jake Comer, another mentor for the installation, and your advice and guidance over the years.
Team Florida, are you out there? They have been a real anchor to the campaign. And not just the Legionnaires, but the Auxiliary, the SAL and the Riders as well.
Thank you to Bob Proctor, our NEC, who served as the campaign chairman, and had plenty of advice along the way.
Thank you to Dennis Boland, our alternate NEC who served as the co-chairman and was always there.
Thank you to Mike McDaniel, the department adjutant and campaign treasurer, for not losing any of the money I was spending.
And of course, my wife again for the time she spent booking all my flights so she could be sure I would be leaving. She had a better slogan than I had - her slogan for the campaign was "It's about time you to be deployed again."
Thank you for the committee that was the heart of Team Florida and are here wearing their green team shirts, but special thanks to three couples who made all the receptions the spectacular successes they were - George and Irma Wehrli, Phil and Peggy Hearlson, and Larry and Sandy White. You will get to know Larry and Sandy better as the year progresses as Larry has agreed to serve as my aide. Again, thank you Larry.
I'd like to thank all the departments I visited for your courtesies and your camaraderie, it was an honor to spend time with you.
A great deal of thanks go to Commander Rehbein for his leadership, his responsiveness, and his ability to meet every challenge during the superb year he just finished. You have set the bar high, sir. Please join me in recognizing his performance again.
As I assume the reins of our great organization here in Louisville, I cannot help but repeat part of the opening for my campaign speeches:
These are extremely challenging times.
As a grassroots organization, the strength and reputation of our posts are crucial to our organizational success.
Some posts are flourishing, and some are struggling.
Those posts that are doing well need to reach out and help those posts that need help. The post is where the programs are conducted, where the hard work that establishes our reputation occurs, and where The American Legion has an impact and makes a difference.
The district commanders are closest to the action, and a vital cog to making us successful, by visiting their posts, helping them when necessary and ensuring their posts are participating in our programs.
Our veterans and active-duty forces need our strength as never before. Any success we can achieve depends on our ability to influence members of our government at all levels.
Many of you have heard me refer to working membership as "the hardest easy job" we have to do.
By that I mean that most Legionnaires can cite chapter and verse about our many programs that can entice someone to join. And I congratulate them on their ability to sell the product.
But when I ask them how many they have recruited, the answer is none or one.
So there must be something hard about recruiting that I haven't figured out. If you know what makes recruiting so hard, or how to solve it, please let me know.
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. 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.
DMS is back this year and has already brought in over 100,000 with a goal of 190,000. But we can't let DMS make us lazy again. We need to continue that personal touch and mentor our members. The more you stay in touch with those you recruit, the more chance we have to retain them.
There are four areas of membership I have stressed.
I believe the Legion Riders are the greatest membership idea ever. Establishing Legion Riders chapters brings in new members to all three branches of the Legion family and upwards of 75 percent of them would not have joined without the Riders. Once again with this Legacy Run, they have shown how significant their contribution can be, having raised over $600,000 to date. I consider them a fountain of membership and enthusiasm. And I think like the V-8 commercial - we could have had the Riders for 70 years but we didn't think of it.
Someone out there has the next great idea to boost membership in the long term - where are you and where is it? It's not me or I'd be telling you about it. If you have any ideas that would help our long-term growth, step forward and let us know what it is.
Women and minorities are important to our future as there are more women and minorities serving today than ever before. We need to attract more women and minorities, get them educated about The American Legion and involved in our programs, and encourage them to take on positions of increased responsibility. There needs to be more women and minorities in this room.
If we don't take advantage of their time and talents, someone else will.
Let's not forget the Vietnam veteran as they are a valuable resource and currently comprise 35 percent of our membership. Many of them have recently retired or are about to retire and they can make an immediate impact on our programs.
Finally, we need to attract the youth serving our nation today. To do that, we must consider their needs and adapt to and bridge the generation gap.
In today's euphemism, we need to start thinking outside the box - be more creative in what we offer in our posts and think of some non-traditional uses of our posts. Things like 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 that they are interested in.
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.
As an example, I didn't pass through a metal detector or have a police officer on my campus.
I believe that technology is important to our future success.
The Internet is a wonderful tool, and it's where the youth are.
National will be rolling out a new Web site in November that will make us more attractive to the youth.
We need to take advantage of the social networking aspects of the Internet and be involved with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the other sites. National will be setting up two blogs - the Burn Pit for the younger vets and another for the Vietnam vets, and each department needs to consider establishing their own blogs and their own presence on these sites.
I am on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn and invite you to look me up. I follow the VFW, DAV, AMVETS, SVA and IAVA on Facebook and Twitter, and they are putting out a lot of information whether accurate or not, and the young vets are seeing it.
I hope to keep you up to date on the national site with a summary of each visit I make. I will try to hold regular Webcam meetings with the national Vice-Commanders. I will also try to periodically put a Webcast on the national site to keep you apprised of important issues and accomplishments.
I believe that timely communications are important to make our message more effectively heard. I will be working hard to reach out to you to let you know what we are doing about the important issues.
But it is just as important for you to reach out within your communities to let them know the good work you are doing for them. For too long, I have heard the lament that we aren't very good at tooting our own horn and publicizing our activities. Well why not? What's stopping us?
The national organization puts out press releases you can use, and any number of other products, and you can do your own releases on your community activities. Establish your own rapport with your local media and your own contacts.
But we don't even toot our horns within our own organization as we only had 59 percent of our posts submit year-end reports this year. Fifty-nine percent. Sounds pretty pathetic to me - but that's what we have to work with to compile our annual report to Congress. Is that going to be a good snapshot to Congress on what The American Legion has accomplished this last year? We have to do better, and you, as the leaders, need to spearhead the effort.
This organization was established on four pillars in 1919, and we remain true to those pillars today.
First, we take care of our veterans - we lobby for veterans benefits, and our service officers help veterans with their claims. We volunteer at VA hospitals, and we take challenges like Operation Comfort Warriors, community covenants and Heroes to Hometowns, and make them successes.
Second, we take care of our kids. We provide for them through the Child Welfare Foundation, the Children's Miracle Network, The American Legion Endowment Fund, Temporary Financial Assistance, The National Emergency Fund, and The Legacy Scholarship Program.
Third are our Americanism programs. Baseball was live Webcast for the first time and drew over 2 million viewer minutes. Boys State and Boys Nation, the High School Oratorical Contest, Junior Shooting and the Boy Scouts -these are programs that can't be matched.
Finally, we are for a strong national defense. We lobby Congress for funding for weapons and quality-of-life issues. We are there for the troops when they leave, we support them and their families while they are gone and we are there when they return. We support the troops is not just a slogan to us, it is a way of life. The terrorist threat hasn't diminished, and we need to be ready for any contingency.
I'd like to devote a little time to our responsibilities as a grassroots, issues-driven organization. With the new administration and new Congress, a lot of activity has been occurring and not all of it bad. It has kept Commander Rehbein and the national staff busy, and has demonstrated the need for you all to be involved, to express your opinions on the issues and to stay in touch with your elected representatives at all levels.
Our credibility comes from you, the voter. The National Commander, Steve Robertson or any member of the staff, can visit your representative to discuss an issue. But if it's the first time he or she has heard it, it isn't a problem. But if there are 100 e-mails, letters or phone calls, then he's heard it from the people who count and we are just reinforcing it.
Visit the Legislative Action Center, sign up for the alerts and respond to them when they are issued.
If you need help, contact the staff, they are there for you as much as for anyone.
Just a couple of examples of ongoing issues:
• The health-care debate is today's hot topic, and a final bill hasn't been drafted yet. We need to stay alert to ensure the VA and TRICARE are not affected by a national program. Advanced funding for VA remains a priority and has a lot of support and is waiting on Senate action.
• The ACLU continues its attacks on veterans monuments dedicated to our fallen comrades.
• A bill to allow the VA to collect from Medicare has finally been introduced, and we need to be vocal in our support, and in getting co-sponsors.
• A resolution designating Sept. 16 as "The American Legion Day" has been introduced and also needs co-sponsors. You all got a brochure and booklet about a campaign to make your town a Legiontown.
• Closing Guantanamo is also a hot button issue scheduled to happen in January. I've been to Guantanamo and Camp Delta and believe it to be professionally run and a needed facility. But its negative press around the world has made it synonymous with everything bad, so it probably will go away. But how to accomplish that is a hard question to answer, particularly what to do with these dangerous detainees.
• And when the health-care debate has run its course, the illegal immigration issue will take its place.
These are but a few examples of the need for each of you to pay attention to what is happening and take part in it.
And who knows what issues will come up as they did this year with the President's proposal to bill our health insurance for war wounds, or the Secretary of Homeland Security issuing a report saying our troops were vulnerable and at risk of being recruited by terrorists?
So we need to remain vigilant.
Today you have given me a tremendous honor by electing me your National Commander, and I thank you for your trust and for your devotion to making this the greatest organization in the world.
It's you, the blue-cap Legionnaires, who keep us the greatest organization in the world, and I pledge to give you my best effort. But am depending on your support, your dedication and your participation to make it work.
At every level of The American Legion, we must be relevant to all veterans from all wars.
Thank you and may God bless you, and may God bless the United States.