The mentorship of American Legion leadership

Editor’s Note: In March 2016, I interviewed American Legion National Executive Committee member Merv Gunderson, a Vietnam War veteran and former Montana State University Police officer, alongside Helena, Mont., Post 2 Commander Josh Clement, an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran and full-time active Army National Guard reservist. In April, Gunderson was severely injured in a motorcycle accident and spent several months receiving medical care in Seattle. He recently returned to his home in Belgrade, Mont., where he holds offices in The American Legion at the local, state and national levels, as does Clement, who Gunderson has mentored along the way.

An American Legion member since 2003, Clement got to know Gunderson through a revitalization effort at Post 46 in Boulder, Mont.  A change of National Guard duty stations later sent Clement to Gunderson’s Post 30 in Belgrade, Mont., where he went on to be elected commander. Clement is now commander of Helena’s 700-member Post 2 and serves on the National American Legion Americanism Council. He is also an American Legion Baseball umpire, as Gunderson was.

Their message to Legion leaders at every level, regardless of war era, is that mentorship of young leaders is critical to the future of the organization. It’s especially important now, they say, as younger veterans look to The American Legion to find ways to keep serving and leading their communities, states and nation after discharge or, in the case of Clement, while still actively serving in uniform.

Following are some of their thoughts about mentorship, leadership development, connections between the war eras, and why it all matters:

How well positioned is The American Legion in leadership development?
MG: I don’t think we spend enough time teaching people to mentor and teaching the importance of it. When we go into our department conventions now, we’re bringing in staff from The American Legion national organization to put on programs. We’re doing LEAD (Leadership Education and Development) training because it’s very important to teach people about The American Legion and the concepts. The expectation is that, once you do that, those people will take it back to the post level and teach the post membership about programs they have learned at the department level. We are building that mentoring, but we are building it slowly.

JC: I had the privilege working with Merv, and not only did he explain what the stuff was, he also explained what the different traditions meant, why we do certain things. Once you explain the why to people, they understand.

How soon should the mentorship process begin?
MG: Your first job when you move into a position of leadership should be finding someone to replace you, instead of waiting for the last minute and hoping someone comes along. In the police department, you always have training. You’re training officers who are coming on board. You work with them. You mentor them. Otherwise, you don’t have consistency in the department.

JC: Start early to get mentorship from previous generations … so we don’t show up in 20 years, after we are retired and the kids are out of the house, and the Vietnam generation has gone to the back of the room. It is imperative that we get mentorship between the Vietnam era and the current-era veterans now so we can understand why we are doing stuff … how we grow. It takes a little time, but you’ll find the value in it.

What kind of mentoring did you have when you first got into The American Legion?
MG: They basically said, “You’re going to become the commander … you’re going to become the adjutant … you’re going to become the finance officer.” But no one tells you what’s involved. So, you start researching on your own what you need to do. A lot of it is by trial and error, and a lot of mistakes are made. It would be so much simpler if someone was training them, working with them, giving them a starting point. If you don’t do that in our organization, then you’re doing a disservice to The American Legion.

JC: I had the opportunity to help out in Boulder with Post 46. And I’m like, okay, I’m a soldier and can go do stuff, but what is the substance I need behind it? I wanted to help, but I didn’t know where to start. That’s where it takes a good mentor. If you are revitalizing, you need to know the history. Thirteen years ago, that was my drive – to know the background. You can have all the knowledge, but I didn’t have the wisdom. It takes someone else to bring that all together. At 46, I didn’t know what was going on, or what I should be doing as a leader. Working with Merv … I felt like I grew as a leader.

What was your earliest understanding of The American Legion?
JC: I had a knowledge of The American Legion going through high school. I went to Boys State. I was recognized in ROTC by The American Legion. But there is a huge void there – what did they really do that I didn’t know?

MG: I came from a different generation. When we came back from the Vietnam War, it was a whole different world for us. I had no clue what The American Legion was. Never knew about it … didn’t do anything with it. It took me quite a while to join. When I finally joined the organization, I realized something I had with me all the time – that’s that I was very proud of my military service. It was a short service, but I was very proud of that service. That service taught me to be responsible and to work to keep our country safe, secure and teach the principles of Americanism through everything we do. 

And then, when I got into The American Legion, I said, “This is an opportunity for me to continue my service.” The American Legion allowed me to continue that service even after I retired from law enforcement. So, it’s always been a service concept for me.

A passion for service seems like a common bond across all the war eras.
JC: My entire life, I wanted to be a soldier. I wanted to serve my country. I wanted to serve my family, my nation. Now, The American Legion really gives me that opportunity to serve veterans and focus on taking care of my community, my state and my nation. And that’s what I see The American Legion does. Time and time again, wearing the cap or not wearing the cap, we’re Legionnaires at heart. We’re still trying to serve and make our communities better.

MG: Every soldier swore to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. That wasn’t an oath you take lightly or only take while you’re in the military. It’s an oath that stays with you the rest of your life. The American Legion uses that in the Preamble for a very good reason.

JC: Every servicemember understands to defend the Constitution. Then you look at the fact that every servicemember is part of a family – brothers, sisters, parents – that’s one of the other aspects I look for in The American Legion. I have four wonderful little ones. My oldest is 9. He has been in the SAL his entire life. I want to make sure he has a community that he is proud of, a community that is focused on Americanism. The Legion is a family concept. I am the oldest of seven, and six out seven are wearing, or have worn, the uniform. Both of my brothers-in-law, and five siblings are all part of The American Legion. They understand that principle. They are Army and Air Force – so we give each other ribbing – and yet we have that common bond.

It seems like there is a balancing act between the historical traditions of The American Legion and the need to change to match the interests of new generations.
MG: When we see new veterans coming in, we need to take the time to ask them what they want. What do they want to do? What do they want to see this post do? We’ve made changes at our post in Belgrade because of what the younger generation has told us – more related to families, so they can bring their kids in. They want to do projects within the organization. They want to be there to help.

JC: It was the history that really tied me to The American Legion. It really drives you. That’s where the Preamble concept comes in. It tells our history. It gives our mission statement. As a soldier, I like having that mission statement.

The Preamble to The American Legion Constitution may seem like a mouthful of archaic terms, but does it help young veterans understand the Legion?
JC: “Inculcate” is one of those words. Even at national American Legion College there was an amendment that came up to adjust those words. But we don’t need to. It doesn’t need to change. We know how we bring people together. We are built on history, and we don’t need to deviate. We just need to explain better what (the Preamble) means.

MG: There have been a lot of organizations that decided they could make things more modern and bring more people in. The church was a perfect example of that, a few years ago. And what happened? Membership dropped. They went back to the old traditions because that’s what people wanted. They wanted some stability in their life. They wanted to know where they came from. You’ve got to do that with The American Legion. You’ve got to have that base and then move forward.  Once you get the base down, and know where you came from, now you can start building to where you want to go.

Is it difficult to get post-9/11 veterans to slow down long enough to absorb the Legion’s traditions?
JC: This generation wants to move up and go quickly. I am definitely part of that. I had the privilege of meeting Past National Commander (Dave) Rehbein when he came and did his tour to Montana. I looked over to Merv, who was post adjutant and one of the escorts for him, and I said, “I would like that job.” That is part of that generation – my generation – that want to quickly progress.

The saving grace is that I had a good mentor who said, “Hey, there’s a lot in between here and there.” He gave me the opportunity to excel. He gave me the opportunity to develop myself, get involved with the various programs, get involved with what the foundation of what The American Legion is.

MG: If we’re not giving the opportunity to grow, we are missing the boat.

So, the best resource for a next-generation Legion leader is a mentor?
MG: You can learn it on your own, but as you go through, you’re always watching how other people are doing things, how other posts work, how the national organization works, how the state organization works. You see the little nuances and you build those things into how you want to see The American Legion grow. When Josh came onboard, Post 30 was an opportunity for me to say, “Here is a young veteran who is active duty right now, who is going to be around for a long period of time, and if we take our time, and teach him about the history of The American Legion and where we came from – and why that history is so important – then we can move forward into a new generation.”

JC: We all served. We’re all part of the military organization that has done our part, was asked by the president to support and defend our Constitution. It’s nice that the Vietnam-era veterans realize there was a gap. Same thing the World War I veterans had to do to welcome the World War II veterans. Mentoring – that’s what the Vietnam era did. The legacy of The American Legion is making sure that we are mentoring from the previous generation to the next generation.

MG: Vietnam veterans are the largest segment of The American Legion. However, the fastest growing segment of The American Legion are post-Gulf War veterans. You look at what happened with Vietnam veterans. When people come back (from military service), they are rewarded this time… that’s because Vietnam veterans stood very tall and said, “We will never, ever let what happened to us happen to this younger generation.” They actually made these young people understand that it’s important – what they’re doing is important – and made this country understand it. I think for that reason we are starting to see that generation move toward The American Legion.

What about the importance of mentoring at the local post?
MG: This is a blue cap organization. We work from the bottom up, unlike some organizations that work from the top down. We shouldn’t be expecting the national organization, or the state organization, to do everything. We’ve got to get that mentoring attitude into the post level – get it into the leadership at the post level, so that our post members know how mentoring works, and then, as they move forward through the organization, carry that with them and bring some other people along and mentor them.

What kind of advice can a mentor provide to a young member?
JC: One of the most important pieces of advice that I remember is to care for the veteran, care for the servicemember, and be engaged in your community.
If you say you’re going to do it, do it. You don’t want to be that Legionnaire who promises to do a lot of stuff and then doesn’t execute. Our communities look for The American Legion to be a pillar, whether it’s children and youth activities, whether it’s our Constitution – or how to help a veteran – we have to be approachable.

How can those who have been mentored serve as Legion mentors themselves?
JC: What I do is bring on a young veteran after they have completed training or come back from deployment – their Title 10 time – and I invite them to be a part of The American Legion, to see all aspects. Post 2 here in Helena is a very diverse post. It is active in every aspect of The American Legion and its programs. I ask the young veterans to stay with me the full year, travel with me to district meetings and department conventions, attend meetings, see the programs, attend the baseball conference, see what we have – and after a year, they have been informed and educated.

What does it take to be a good American Legion mentor?
JC: You have to have someone who is personable, someone who is willing to share and impart. It was nice that Merv knew I was ambitious but understood that he could help mentor me. He was personable and not scared to grow me into those positions.

What might help older veterans get younger veterans engaged in post participation and leadership?
JC: Name recognition is critical. Don’t stand in front of the podium and say, “Hey, I’m looking for volunteers!” You need to do it by name with this generation. “I need some help with Americanism. Help me out with the flags. Matt, what do you think about helping?” Put those names behind it, so they feel like they are being pulled into the organization and not just sitting in the back waiting their two decades to move up.

How do you get The American Legion message out of the post and in front of potential young leaders?
MG: That’s the hardest thing. We keep everything a secret in The American Legion. We do so much, but we never tell people our story. I am very fortunate in Belgrade because we’ve got a newspaper that is right next door to our Legion club. We are able to talk to them and get them out when we have a parade and the honor guard is leading that parade, making sure that we’re on the front page of the paper. We make sure that the news media comes out with cameras if we are going to do a flag retirement ceremony, to show why the flag is important to The American Legion and to our community. We make sure that when we do a major parade, like a Memorial Day Parade, we’ve got all kinds of vehicles. We invite people to march and make sure that the cameras are there. Public relations is a huge concept, one we sometimes forget. Every time we do something with the news media, we have younger veterans available and put them in front of the camera. It’s important to let them know that they are a part, and they are recognized for what they do. That’s an important concept.

How difficult is it to motivate busy, young veterans and their families to get involved?
MG: The young generation is doing the same thing my generation did. Families, kids, working – trying to make ends meet and pay the bills – this generation is no different. They are trying to do the best they can do to raise their families. So, what we need to do is let them know, if they have time available, we will be more than happy to allow them to help us out.

JC: I am a full-time guardsman working 50-plus hours a week, a father and husband, taking care of four wonderful little ones. I am giving six to eight hours extra a month to The American Legion because I want to, because I feel it’s so important. All of us have other activities. I can prove, with my activities with the military, my family, Scouting programs and some personal recreation – that we can still put time aside for The American Legion.

Being a member of The American Legion takes effort. But you know when you are done with your meeting or activity, you have done something for your community. Seventy flags go up in Helena, and it may take an hour in the morning before work and an hour after work, but you look and see those stars and stripes waving in the wind, it’s just a reminder of how proud we are as a country. We need to be reminded of that. When you hear people say, “It was nice to see those flags up,” you know you are part of that group that made sure we are reminding people how important it is to be American.

Do you envision a formalized program for American Legion mentoring?
MG: We haven’t done that yet, but I think that would be good.

JC: We are getting close to the next step on this. One of the things we recommend at the national level is taking the (American Legion Online) Extension Institute and create a separate module for mentorship. More or less, to focus on the information that Merv has given to me – on the different criticalities of mentoring – the initiation of young veterans into our organization and how important that is. Have that explained in a module that someone can tangibly look at.

MG: We’re going to mentor with the idea that we would like them to take it over. We want them to be leaders. We need to be willing to follow. But we want to make sure that they understand the concepts and the basis from which this comes, so they can do it without totally disassembling The American Legion.