American Legion National Commander Brett Reistad ​has worked in law enforcement for nearly 40 years. Photo by Lucas Carter

THE CENTENNIAL COMMANDER

Brett Reistad appreciates what it means to be part of a legacy. 

When he completed infantry school in 1974, the Army sent Reistad to historic Fort Myer, Va., to serve with the Presidential Salute Battery of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment – the Old Guard, the Army’s oldest active-duty infantry unit. He enjoyed the mission: firing cannon volleys for ceremonies and special events at Arlington National Cemetery and throughout the Washington, D.C., area. But it was only later, after he’d embarked on a career in law enforcement and become involved in The American Legion, that Reistad began to fully appreciate those four years in the military. 

“To be involved with a unit that prestigious is an honor,” he says. “It’s something I will forever cherish.”

There’s a pride in belonging to something bigger than yourself, something with a rich history. That’s Reistad’s message for Legionnaires as he leads the organization into its centennial year. Elected national commander at the 100th National  Convention in Minneapolis on Aug. 30, he wants each and every member to consider themselves part of his Team 100, building a strong membership and spreading the word about the Legion’s unequaled record of veterans advocacy.

“This is a great year to celebrate The American Legion, and we’re all stakeholders,” Reistad says. “We all have a responsibility to ensure the Legion survives and thrives into the next century.”

‘SELDOM SEEN BUT ALWAYS HEARD’ The military life chose Reistad as much as he chose it. His grandfather served in World War I. Three uncles served in World War II. His father met his mother at West Point, where he was a military policeman and she was a civilian employee. 

As a boy, Reistad spent a lot of weekends at his grandmother’s home in Highland Falls, N.Y., a stone’s throw from the front gate of the U.S. Military Academy, watching cadet sports, drills and parades. He even attended the New York Military Academy, President Trump’s alma mater, for a short time.

“My parents were going through a divorce and felt it was the best environment for me,” he says. “That one year influenced the rest of my life just in terms of learning discipline, taking responsibility for oneself, doing your best.”

During high school, Reistad was active in the Civil Air Patrol, but there was no question he’d join the Army after graduation. He originally enlisted for the 82nd Airborne, but while at infantry training at Fort Polk, La., Reistad wrote a letter requesting consideration for the Old Guard. “I was excited about the idea of serving there,” he says. “Eventually I was given the opportunity.”

As an 11 Charlie, or infantry mortarman, Reistad supported the regiment’s 1st Battalion in tactical training exercises, and fired World War II-era M5 3-inch anti-tank guns for hundreds of ceremonies. His unit often worked in secluded parts of Arlington – its unofficial motto was “seldom seen but always heard” – but Reistad always loved public performances, including the “1812 Overture” with the U.S. Army Band. 

While at Fort Myer, Reistad took an EMT course – a seemingly small decision that changed the course of his life. “Our instructors were paramedics from Arlington County, and they encouraged us to take what we learned and use it,” he says. “Two of my roommates were volunteer firemen at Bailey’s Crossroads VFD, so I came on board and got to use my skills as an EMT. What fascinated me most, though, were the police officers coming into the fire station to use the phone. They’d have stories about the calls they were on, and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

Unable to change his MOS, Reistad left the Army to pursue a career in law enforcement. In 1978, he joined the Fairfax County Police Department, working first as a patrolman and then a patrol supervisor. He went on to oversee three different investigative squads and serve as director of a regional automated fingerprint identification system center. Reistad retired from the department in 2003, but not from law enforcement entirely.

He’s currently a law-enforcement coordinator for the Regional Organized Crime Information Center (ROCIC) of the Regional Information Sharing Systems (RISS) program, funded by Congress through the Justice Department. His focus is to provide information sharing, intelligence sharing and investigative assistance to federal, state and local law enforcement, as well as prosecutors.

“I’m an emissary,” Reistad says. “I promote the program, bring new agencies aboard and do training. It’s a great job for me because I can use everything I learned during my 26-year career to help other law-enforcement agencies.”

Lt. Col. Ted Arnn, deputy chief of police for the Fairfax County Police Department, has known Reistad for nearly 20 years. He believes he’s wired for service to others, and an ideal choice to lead the nation’s largest veterans organization. 

“When he talks about The American Legion, you really get a sense of how much it means to him,” Arnn says. “I always tell folks that while our military keeps us safe at home and abroad, our police and public safety officials keep us safe in our communities. For Brett to do that for a quarter of a century and continue in this field after retiring is incredible. Who else do you want but somebody with that sort of dedication?” 

‘SIGN HERE’ Reistad has a vivid memory of the day he joined the Legion, 37 years ago. He was managing traffic at a community parade and met four Legionnaires from McLean Post 270. Two carried M1 rifles and two carried flags. Curious about the differences between an M1 and the M14 he’d used in the Army, Reistad asked if he could take a look. One of the veterans handed him his rifle, and Reistad performed the manual of arms, explaining where and when he’d served. Wide-eyed and smiling, the veteran told him he was eligible for membership in The American Legion.

“He put an application down on the hood of my police car, gave me a pen, and said, ‘Sign here and give me $25,’” Reistad recalls. “I was then invited to a post meeting, where I was warmly received by what was mostly a group of World War II veterans. The next year, I was marching down the street as part of that color guard.”

Soon Reistad was elected commander of Post 270, and appointed chairman of its membership and fundraising committees. He also took over the post newsletter, earning award after award. 

As he rose in the Legion’s ranks – district commander, department historian, department commander and other offices – Reistad became an avid student of the organization’s history. He has his own library of Legion books dating to 1919, as well as a collection of Legion memorabilia.

When he began receiving national appointments – the National Public Relations Committee, vice chairman of the National Distinguished Guests Committee, chairman of the National Legislative Commission and member of the Citizens Flag Alliance, among others – Reistad’s wife, Jessica, told him he’d be national commander one day. 

“I’m his biggest fan,” she says. “He’s kind, he’s honest, he’s hardworking, and he gets things done. The word ‘no,’ when it comes to the Legion, is not in his vocabulary.”

To Reistad, there’s no better year to hold the Legion’s highest office. As the organization turns 100, he’s eager to talk about all it’s accomplished for veterans – and why The American Legion is as vital today as it was in 1919.

He acknowledges that veterans service organizations, including the Legion, face challenges in recruiting and retaining members. He also thinks those challenges aren’t insurmountable.

“Everything isn’t as it appears,” Reistad says. “It’s not that we don’t have appeal. It’s not that we’re not viable anymore. It’s more that we’re losing a generation of some of the most staunch supporters of our organization, as older veterans pass away. We’re passing the torch, but it doesn’t happen overnight.”

That said, it’s time to encourage younger veterans to take their place in the Legion’s expanding legacy, he adds. He’d like to see 100 posts chartered during the centennial, full of new members who are inspired by the founders’ original vision.

“What sells the organization more than anything else is Legionnaires having fun and enjoying the camaraderie and service they perform,” he says. “It’s contagious.”  

Matt Grills is managing editor of The American Legion Magazine.