American Legion National Commander Brett Reistad addressed a joint session of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans' Affairs Feb. 27, to conclude the Legion’s annual Washington Conference in the nation's capital.
Reistad's address to the committee highlighted The American Legion’s efforts and success in aiding members of the Coast Guard during the recent government shutdown and called upon Congress and the administration to adhere to their constitutionally-mandated responsibility to support the military.
“Mission is a word that we take very seriously – something that has been forged into us since our first day of military basic training,” Reistad said. “It is an inner fortitude that tells us that no matter what it takes, we will accomplish the task at hand.
“It is synonymous with being a veteran. We have seen this clearly demonstrated by the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard, who despite a stoppage of pay, continued to deploy more than 2,000 members a day, at sea and ashore.”
During the shutdown, the American Legion provided financial assistance totaling more than $1 million to Coast Guard families.
“Pay uncertainty is difficult for everyone impacted, but especially those, who – by contract – are required to continue working and risking their lives in an occupation that provides, at best, modest pay,” he said.
Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs Mark Takano, D-Calif., touted the importance of The American Legion, saying Congress relies on the organization to hold legislators accountable and as a check to ensure Congress acts in the best interests of our nation’s veterans.
“We rely on The American Legion in our districts and states back home, and here in Washington, D.C., to be the voice for millions of veterans,” he said. “For 100 years, members of your organization have been on the front lines as a strong voice on Capitol Hill ensuring Congress fulfills its promise to veterans."
Reistad also brought attention to the plight of suicide in the veteran community and the increasing rates of suicide in post-9/11 veterans.
“PTSD, TBI and feelings of a loss of purpose or belonging are frequently found among those who attempt such tragic and permanent endings,” he said. “These feelings and conditions are either preventable or treatable. It must be the mission of every Legionnaire, every veteran, every employee of the DoD and VA – and, I might add, every member of Congress – to stop such national tragedies.”
Another key message delivered by Reistad focused on concerns of privatization of VA as well as implementation of the VA Mission Act, noting the Mission Act must live up to its mission to serve veterans rather than serving private-sector health-care providers.
“The American Legion does not oppose Choice,” he said, "but, we adamantly oppose any plan that would gut the best health-care system in the country.
“The central fact remains that nobody understands the unique health care needs of the veteran population better than the professionals at the VA.”
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., called the next 24 months critical when it comes to the future of VA health care.
“Nothing we’ve done is going to work unless you help us make it work,” he said of the implementation of the Mission Act. “We need all these efforts to become reality and not just promises.
“A few years from now, we will look back and view this as one of the great times for VA and for America’s veterans.”
Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., brought attention the struggles women veterans often face when it comes to VA care, noting that women now comprise about 10 percent of the veteran population and the number is growing rapidly.
“In the Legion’s view,” she asked, “what does VA need to be doing to ensure female veterans are receiving the care they need?”
Chanin Nuntavong, director of The American Legion’s Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division, responded.
“It’s important (women veterans) receive gender-specific care that they deserve. We hope you can encourage VA to provide childcare services in VA facilities and help VA with the privacy female veterans need when they come to VA medical facilities.”
One of the key elements of the commander’s testimony focused on membership eligibility and recognizing the hostilities that have taken place during unofficial periods of war. He called upon Congress to declare that the United States “has been continuously engaged in a state of war from December 7, 1941, until such a date in the future that our government may declare an end to all armed hostilities.”
“Our organization was chartered by Congress to serve as the leading voice for veterans of the Great War.," Reistad said. "The thinking at the time was that World War 1 was so horrendous that it was the war to end all wars. As we all know, history proved that it wasn’t.
“Our charter and membership eligibility have mirrored the eras officially recognized by the U.S. government to include the wars and conflicts such as Korea, Vietnam and the Global War on Terror. However, these recognized periods fail to take into account the hostilities that occur between official war eras, in which nearly 1,600 U.S. military personnel were killed or wounded in places like Cuba, Iran and El Salvador.”
In closing, Reistad remarked on the mission of The American Legion.
“You have heard me discuss 'mission' quite a bit this morning,” he said. “That’s because the founders of our organization had a post-war mission. Their mission – one that continues today – was to care for veterans.
“It’s tempting to say, 'Mission accomplished,' but that implies that our work is done. So I prefer to say, 'Mission still being accomplished,' and I invite all members of Congress to join us in a mission to make a better America.”