National commander uses Legion legacy to advance legislative agenda

Weaving in The American Legion’s 2017 legislative priorities into a narrative of the organization’s 98-year history, National Commander Charles E. Schmidt skillfully led Legion testimony before a joint session of the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs committees Wednesday morning.

“Nearly117,000 Americans gave their lives to successfully liberate Europe. Among our ranks, they are never forgotten,” Schmidt said of World War I veterans. “The American Legion was born of this generation, which inspires us and our legislative agenda today just five weeks away from the 100th anniversary of U.S. entry into the war that was supposed to end all wars. But it didn’t …The American Legion’s legislative agenda, in a new era of global war, bears many resemblances to that of our first generation.”

Schmidt added that those priorities include “compassionate treatment for service-connected mental health conditions, defined as ‘shell shock’ or ‘combat fatigue’ at the time, now known as ‘post-traumatic stress disorder.’”

House VA Committee Chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., praised the Legion for its expertise and monitoring of the Department of Veterans Affairs. “We ask that The American Legion remain engaged in visiting and reporting on what is happening at the local level with VA facilities,” said Roe, who is a physician and Legionnaire. “Please continue to keep Congress informed about the veteran experience, especially with regard to disability claim processing and the delivery of health care from VA and non-VA providers in the community. Your System Worth Saving task force has been invaluable as we address the challenges facing VA.”

Referring to the wait-time manipulation scandals of 2014, Schmidt said, “At one point in the not-so-distant past, for instance, quality was the prevailing problem at VA, not access. So we all worked together to turn VA into what is now described by its patients and most experts as ‘the best care anywhere.’ An unpredicted result of higher VA quality, in many areas, became the long line to get appointments. Easing access to care is now VA’s prevailing problem, and there is no reason we cannot achieve a solution by working together, as we have before.”

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., opened the hearing with an important assurance to The American Legion. “We don’t want to privatize the VA,” Tillis said. “I want to underscore that. Anyone here who tells you that this chair or any member of this committee is intent on privatizing VA is not right.”

Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., offered some bipartisan agreement. “It’s disinformation and disingenuous to talk about people wanting to privatize VA,” he said. “We want to fix it. We want to modernize it. We want to make sure that we deliver the care where the veteran needs it but with an understanding of the core mission that VA needs to be there.”

Schmidt continued the Legion’s push to modernize the veterans appeals process, which if left alone will cause veterans to have to wait 10 years by 2027 to have an appeal decided. “No one should have to wait a decade for an answer from VA. As our American Legion social media hashtag campaign states, ‘veterans deserve better.’ I am asking now for your support to pass a VA appeals modernization bill.”

VA was not the only topic on the table. Recalling The American Legion’s Flag Conference of 1923, which changed the course of history, Schmidt told lawmakers, “The American Legion will not budge on its reverence for our flag, supported by over 80 percent of the public, and asks once again: ‘Will you please pass a constitutional amendment to return to Congress the power to protect the United States flag from physical desecration?' It is not, as the Supreme Court narrowly determined in a 5-4 vote, an act of free speech. It is behavior. It’s intentional desecration, which can incite violence, and defies everything our nation stands for.”

With the Legion's centennial rapidly approaching, Schmidt reminded the committee members that legislation is being drafted for the U.S. Mint to strike a commemorative coin and issue a U.S. postage stamp. “We would be honored to count on your support for both the coin and the stamp, in tribute not so much to The American Legion as a branded veterans service organization, but to The American Legion as a symbol of democracy, liberty, fairness and opportunity.”