Philip B. Onderdonk Jr. moved into The American Legion National Judge Advocate’s office at a time when legal work at National Headquarters in Indianapolis required mastery of such tools as typewriters, paper, correction tape, pens and leather-bound books filled with case law.
The typewriter keys clack no more. The pads and pens might be in a box somewhere. The books have barely wiggled in a decade.
“Computers,” Onderdonk says without hesitation, made the biggest difference during his 35 years as chief legal counsel for the nation’s largest organization of wartime veterans. “They’re all over the place now. Back when I started, Bert Davis did not have a computer, and neither did I. We used to do research in these books. Statutes. Supreme Court case law. Encyclopedias. Nowadays, you can do it much faster on the computer.”
On Jan. 1, having served as a national officer of The American Legion longer than anyone in history, Onderdonk is retiring. Navy veteran Kevin Bartlett, a 28-year member of American Legion Post 79 in Marshall, Mich., has been appointed by American Legion National Commander Denise Rohan to assume the office. Onderdonk, a Vietnam War Army veteran and member of American Legion Post 183 in Parkville, Md., will continue as a legal consultant until August 2018.
In 1983, Onderdonk was appointed to replace Bertram G. Davis of New York, who had filled the office for the previous 23 years. Bartlett, who has served as assistant national judge advocate since June 2017, becomes just the ninth national judge advocate since the organization’s founding in 1919.
Surrounded by half-filled cardboard boxes, his walls bare of certificates, diplomas, awards and artwork that revealed to any visitor his love of trains and history, Onderdonk recently reflected on his tenure as national judge advocate, only the third to hold that office since 1935.
What drew you into military service?
When I got out of high school, I wasn’t even thinking about it. I got into Johns Hopkins and went down a couple of weeks early to try out for the football team.
Johns Hopkins has a football team?
Their goal is the same every year – win one game.
What happened when you tried out?
I had gotten hurt in high school ball, and when I hit the bag the first time, my wrist popped. That was it. I couldn’t play football anymore. So, I saw these various signs that were up on campus – to check out ROTC. So I did. It was something to do. I got into Pershing Rifles and (the National Society of) Scabbard and Blade … and it kept me in college when they tried to draft me out of college.
You wanted to play college football, ended up in ROTC, started as a chemical engineering major and wound up in pre-law. How did all that ultimately lead you to Vietnam?
When I finished ROTC, I was a second lieutenant. I took a delayed call to active duty and went to the University of Maryland Law School at night. I had a wife and daughter at that point and had to support them. So I had to have a job. I was a trainee at First National Bank. Basically, I was a bank teller for the first two years and after that started studying loans and computer operations. I finished my law degree in 1969 and passed the bar exam in Pennsylvania. I was already in the Army when I got admitted. I was sworn in in my uniform.
I was in the ordnance corps and got sent out to tank-auto command in Warren, Mich., just north of Detroit. A colonel there wanted me to go career. Then he said every company-grade officer needs combat experience. So he basically volunteered me for ‘Nam.
You were a contracting officer in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971, but you were in and out of combat zones at a time when things were still pretty hot, right?
You had to be very careful. I started out running a field office in I Corps for the procurement agency. After three months, we closed that, and I started working out of the headquarters in Cholon, which is a suburb of Saigon, and living on the economy, which can be tricky.
How close were you to making a career of the Army?
I had a situation with a colonel who gave me an illegal order. When I asked for it in writing, that was the end of that career – but I didn’t get court-martialed, either. I knew my career was over once the colonel got through with me.
What happened after discharge?
When I came home from ‘Nam, the job at the bank had been filled, so I became a law clerk at the federal district court in Philadelphia. The judge I worked for – Hon. J. William Ditter – had commanded a destroyer escort in World War II in the Pacific.
But you did not join The American Legion right away?
I joined The American Legion in ’83 when I started working here. I had tried a local post, but they told me, “Get out, you Vietnam druggie.” So I didn’t think too highly of the Legion. Of course, that post doesn’t exist anymore. They went out of business, very obviously.
Then you were mentored by someone who changed your understanding.
Bert Davis – great lawyer. Knew exactly what he was doing. He served in World War II and got his law degree through the GI Bill. He cared for the organization deeply. The Legion was his life.
What, exactly, is the role of the national judge advocate?
Corporate general counsel. You review and make suggestions on all kinds of documents – contracts, give advice concerning constitution and bylaws, tax laws and various other laws.
So, it’s not just at the national level?
Local, national, state … the distinctions are provided by the corporate charter. The national organization can give advice of counsel to its local chapters and state organizations – but does not control them. (Posts and departments) are independent under the charter, constitution and bylaws. That gets to be a problem in various lawsuits because plaintiffs’ lawyers want national to be responsible, and we’re not – (posts and departments) are independent at the local level. We give advice and counsel.
Protection of The American Legion emblem is another big part of the office, right?
We have the trademark – the Legion emblem. We have also trademarked a number of other designs. We have a series of cease-and-desist letters. If you don’t follow them, we will sue you, and we will win. The Legion emblem is protected for federal criminal law. It is a federal crime to use it without permission. The same is true for The American Legion Auxiliary and the Sons of The American Legion. That backs people off very quickly.
We didn’t actually go out and trademark the emblem until the 1980s because we had the protection of the corporate charter and federal criminal law. The problem is that the trademark law got amended, and court decisions started to include some vagaries – it wasn’t quite as precise as we preferred – so we decided to go for the trademark.
What are some ways the emblem is misused?
People want to use it on items sold to the post, or some organizations want to use the emblem to claim that they are supported by The American Legion. We do not support other organizations unless we have identical interests on some issue, and only for that issue.
You’ve worked on cases ranging from claims involving small-town posts to Supreme Court rulings, but American Legion defense of symbols on veterans memorials seems to have always been a passion for you. How did that come about?
Liberty Legal Institute approached us to join them as an amicus (friend of the court) in protecting various veterans memorials and monuments. Often these would be in the shape of a cross. Often, they would be on public land, and various organizations and entities would want them torn down. We are not pushing any particular religion. What we are pushing is that veterans memorials are worth saving. It’s been quite a relationship, and we’ve done quite well in some of these cases.
In 2015 at The American Legion National Convention in Baltimore, Liberty Legal Institute introduced the Philip B. Onderdonk Jr. Religious Liberty Award, a beautifully engraved rifle. What was it like to be the namesake for an annual award like that?
A total surprise – stunning, essentially. When they stood up and announced it, my mouth fell open. I had no idea it was coming.
Aside from memorial protection, what’s another high point that comes to mind over your career as chief counsel for The American Legion?
The Court of Veterans Appeals – The American Legion drafted the initial bill that led to that. There was a lot of inherent resistance. A lot of politicians were not in the mood to increase the number of courts.
Why was this new court necessary?
So many times, the veteran would have a claim – a valid claim – denied and then have to go and eventually get into the court system, through district courts, that were not familiar with veterans laws at all. This way, they go through the appeals process with VA, and if they want, they can appeal to the Court of Veterans Appeals, which specializes in veterans cases.
As you have gotten to know The American Legion better over the years, how has your passion for it evolved?
It comes because you’re getting to help veterans – people who served.
After 35 years of this, what advice do you have for others who follow in your footsteps?
You put the organization first, last and always. You’re a corporate officer, and certain responsibilities go with that position. I learned in an another organization that even if you’re the commander or president, don’t give orders. Ask for help instead. When you’re in a volunteer organization, you get a lot more assistance that way. And the Legion is not top down. The Legion is bottom up.
Kevin Bartlett will make an excellent national judge advocate. He has been learning the ins and outs. I have been including him in all the cases that have come up, and he’s a good attorney. I don’t think he’s going to need guidance, but it’s nice to have someone to bounce ideas off.
How do you plan to spend your retirement years?
I haven’t really decided what I am going to do. I do like grand opera. I do like model trains. But that’s just me. It’s a good question, and I don’t have an answer.
Is it emotional for you to leave after all these years?
What will you miss most?
The people. I have enjoyed working for the Legion immensely.
What about all these books?
Good question. They’re still here because … well, what else are you going to do with them?
Jeff Stoffer is director of The American Legion Media & Communications Division.