Today’s warriors need us more than ever

By my second day in the war theater of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I realized I was surrounded by reasons why The American Legion matters today as much as ever – maybe more so. These reasons appeared in the form of living, breathing men and women who have voluntarily placed themselves in harm’s way under our nation’s flag. That day in Baghdad, as temperatures climbed past 110 degrees, I saw our organization’s purpose in the eyes of a twice-deployed Army infantryman who described seeing the life of a close battle buddy extinguished in the flash of a roadside bomb. Working in maintenance as U.S. troops prepared to pull out of Iraq’s major cities, the soldier grumbled that he belonged on patrol. His transition to civilian life will not be easy, it occurred to me. During the same trip, I met with a group of young heroes who had been severely wounded in combat, including some who had lost limbs. They were returning to where they were hit, as part of a special program designed to give them a sense of closure. They, too, wanted to go back to their units. In fact, wherever I traveled this year and met with members of our armed forces – from the Kaiserslautern in Germany to the South Korea-North Korea DMZ and Iraq – the mantra was repeated among this unflinching group. They live to serve, regardless of the risks, dangers, hardships and sacrifices they and their families face every day. All war eras produce veterans with unique characteristics, but this new generation is truly remarkable. Quite simply, they are duty-driven professionals – brave, patriotic, spirited and capable. I am certain they will become extraordinary Legionnaires. In the meantime, we Legionnaires are here to serve them. No matter where they are stationed, no matter their mission, we must always be a symbol of home-front support to them, whatever others might say about the war or how numb society becomes to it over the years. The Family Support Network, Temporary Financial Assistance, Heroes to Hometowns, our service officer corps and our on-post transition program at Walter Reed are just a few examples of how the Legion expresses its support at the national level. Locally, there are countless examples, from care packages to GPS systems sent to combat units. Last December, The American Legion launched a support program that is both local and national. Operation Comfort Warriors was born after we learned that servicemembers recovering in military hospitals need some comfort items not normally budgeted by DoD. Within months, despite a difficult economy, nearly $175,000 was raised, one check at a time. The American Legion has spent no less than 75 percent of these donations buying and delivering sweat suits, DVDs, puzzles, electronic games, books, calling cards and other items, and not a dime on administrative costs. The remaining funds will be used for their intended purposes: the wounded warriors. When I was elected national commander, I said that my year would be guided by “pride and purpose.” I am truly honored to announce that Operation Comfort Warriors will continue indefinitely, an excellent illustration of what I meant by those words.