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The healing power of the outdoors

For 51 years, veterans in Minnesota have headed to Ely, Minn., in May for a week of relaxation and fishing. But the annual Disabled Veterans Fishing Retreat is not just about fishing and taking in the amazing scenery on Fall Lake and inside Superior National Forest.

It’s also about healing. That’s what Legionnaire Denny Houg, who has volunteered at the event for a decade, has seen take place.

“We meet all kinds of veterans with different needs,” said Houg, a member of Post 254 in Sauk Rapids. “Some are blind. Some are physically handicapped, possible amputees. Wheelchair-bound. PTSD.

“We had a young person with severe PTSD who caught his first two walleyes. The guy, he couldn’t hardly carry on a conversation prior (to catching the fish). But you just saw the medicine. It’s therapy.”

The retreat, which takes place at Veterans on the Lake Resort, started as a Department of Veterans Affairs program, but VA decided to end the program three years ago. That’s when The American Legion Department of Minnesota teamed up with Disabled American Veterans, Vietnam Veterans of America and other veterans service organizations to keep the program going.

Department of Minnesota Adjutant Randy Tesdahl said that while the department didn’t officially become involved with the retreat until around 2005, Legionnaires and posts have been supporting it for decades.

In May of this year, more than 30 Legion family members volunteered at the camp, helping with meals and doing anything else needed. Department of Minnesota Commander Denise Milton was one of the Legionnaires who showed up to support this year’s retreat.

“It’s pretty awesome,” Milton said. “Up here, almost everyone loves fishing and hunting. I think it brings a sense of normalcy, to be honest: being able to do what others do.”

Veterans don’t pay anything to participate. Funding for the event comes via donations and grants. Minnesota Veterans 4 Veterans, a nonprofit set up to provide grants to organizations that assist veterans with their transition into the civilian world, has been a longtime supporter of the fishing retreat. The organization provided a three-year, $90,000 grant to cover housing and food expenses for the week; the event is in the second year of the grant.

Tesdahl said the program provides much more than an outdoors experience for its participants. “We cannot claim to be an alternative form of mental health care. But in reality, we are,” he said. “You see that when these guys get together on a boat deck. They start talking about the commonality. They have shared experiences even though they’re generations apart. There is a healing effect to it.”

Dave Berscheit, who served in the U.S. Marines from 1986-1992, suffered a spinal stroke in 2006 that impaired his mobility from the neck down. While he enjoyed catching fish at this year’s retreat, there was something he found even more fulfilling.

“To be up here with a group of guys … it doesn’t matter if you catch fish,” Berscheit said. “It’s not necessarily about that. There’s no real barrier. It’s just easier to talk to them.”

Berscheit and the other veterans who took part in this year’s retreat applied for a spot in the event. Those applications are vetted by former longtime VA employee Dennis Erie, who was hired by the Minnesota Legion and other VSOs to coordinate the program.

Erie said he received around 50 applications for this year’s 35 spots. Preference is given to disabled and World War II veterans, as well as those applicants who have never taken part in the event.

Like Tesdahl, Erie sees a healing effect from the week. “It’s all positive,” he said. “There are a lot of smiles coming back. It’s an opportunity to get out in Northern Minnesota and be around some other vets.”

The veterans are provided professional fishing guides who donate their time – and equipment – the entire week. When word of mouth spread about the event, Tesdahl said guides lined up to volunteer.

That professional guides are there is because of the efforts of Minnesota National Guard Col. Scott St. Sauver, the outgoing commanding officer at Camp Ripley – one of the largest National Guard training bases in the nation. A co-angler on professional walleye circuit, St. Sauver also has seen what he calls the “tremendous” healing power of the outdoors and has worked with the Legion on other outdoor events for veterans.

Using his contacts in professional fishing, he was able to line up guides for the retreat. But St. Sauver admits he didn’t have to pitch the event too hard to get buy-in from the pros. It’s their way to give back,” he said. “It’s patriotism. These guides will get $500, $600 a day right now, but they’re up here for free.”

That’s why professional fisherman Mark Courts, the 2015 Lucas Oil Walleye Angler of the Year with 12 top-10 finishes in the Fishing League Worldwide, was at Ely this year. “For me, it’s my way of giving back,” he said. “I wasn’t able to serve when I was younger due to health issues, and I always had ties to it. For me, this is fun.”

Courts also saw a transformation in the veterans he took out on his boat this year. “Outdoors is an amazing place,” he said. “It’s got healing powers that nobody can really explain. The minute you get somebody outdoors – no matter their situation, their mindset or any of that – it just goes away. All they’re thinking about is what they’re doing and how they’re enjoying the outdoors.”

For Tesdahl, an avid fisherman who used his own boat to take veterans out to fish during the retreat, the event also is a valuable promotional tool for the Legion. “It’s all about branding,” he said. “It’s all about marketing. It’s all about … changing the image. We’re doing cool stuff.”

And it’s stuff that’s making an impact. Houg fondly remembers what could have been a tragic story from the retreat that instead showed the power of camaraderie. He said that a few years ago a gentleman died of a heart attack while at the retreat. But on the day he died, the man had fished, watched the Minnesota Twins win a baseball game on TV and then won at cards that night in his cabin.

“We went to the funeral,” Houg said. “His sisters said, ‘We were always afraid that he would die by himself in his apartment.’ I said, ‘He sure didn’t do that.’ They were so thankful. He’d had a good last day and died with friends all around him.”

'New blood and new excitement'

Having served in the Air Force for six years, Brent Webb found himself having trouble getting used to the civilian world. But after a friend advised him to visit American Legion Hollywood Post 43 in Los Angeles, Webb found the going a little easier.

“I felt like I finally found people I could connect with,” said Webb, now 28. “I felt like I had an outlet to be able to help support my community and take care of people that were important to me.”

When his plans changed, Webb ended up moving to Chicago. But before he did, he got some advice from fellow Post 43 members. “(They) were like, ‘You’ve seen what a really good post can be. Find a post and get as involved as you can and see if you can make something really positive out of it,’” Webb said.

The 28-year-old has done just that. About a year after moving to the Midwest, Webb joined Tattler Post 973 and soon became post commander. In that role, he and other Legionnaires have helped turn things around at the 71-year-old post, making it a community centerpiece once again.

Webb said the first time he came to the post he met CJ Seestadt and Ken Madsen. Wanting to get as involved as he could – and wanting to take advantage of the free time he had while finishing up his degree at DePaul University – he began helping out at various post events.

Seestadt and Madsen, already leading a movement to revitalize the post, urged Webb to consider taking the post commander role. A few months later, the pair had convinced Webb he could handle the job.

“I was nervous,” admitted Webb, a recent graduate of DePaul University. “I’d never been in a position of leadership. I was an instructor in the military, but I’d never been involved in something of this capacity.”

Seestadt, 48, joined the post three and a half years ago. Turning things around required getting the post’s older membership to buy into the plan and then find someone willing to lead. Knowing Webb’s age might be a concern to some members, Seestadt pulled out a history lesson.

“I told them, ‘Hey, how old were these guys when they came back from World War II and were running the place?’” said Seestadt, the post’s Junior Vice Commander (Entertainment). “There was a transitional period, but it’s all been positive. We’re growing at such a pace now that we’ve gotten people’s attention.”

The revitalization effort included revamping the social area of the post to make it friendlier to potential members. New events conducted by the post included a comedy night, a movie night and a jazz night – events “that would attract people … young veterans,” Seestadt said. In addition to raising the post’s profile, it’s also created a larger revenue stream. The post went from making $300 a year to around $3,000 a month.

“We knew individuals who were interested in doing these events and were looking for space to do it,” Webb said. “We decided to say, ‘You know what? Let us experiment and see if it works. If it doesn’t, we’ll stop. If people have a problem with it, we’ll stop.’”

The post also began establishing relationships with other organizations in Chicago, including fellow veterans organization Chicago Veterans. Kevin Barszcz, one of the founders of Chicago Veterans, now serves as Post 973’s Senior Vice Commander (Membership). He helped facilitate the relationship between the two organizations, which led to Illinois Legionnaires supporting Chicago Veterans’ recent Ruck March.

“I think it’s important … for the city of Chicago,” Barszcz said of the relationship. “I think that all veterans organizations … should have to come together. At the end of the day we’re here for one reason: to support our veterans. I always see it as one team, one fight.”

Madsen, who serves as Post 973's Junior Vice Commander (House), said the post’s upswing has been a source of pride. “When you walk in here, it doesn’t look like (no one's) been here in six weeks,” he said. “You would come in any night of the week and literally have the place to yourself. We’ve turned that around.

“It’s absolutely fantastic. But the one thing that I’ve liked is that it hasn’t been to the exclusion to the people that were here before, nor do we exclude the people that are coming in. It’s been a great meld of the old and the new.”

Peter Kakurba, a 21-year member and past post commander, said when he joined Post 973 he was placed on a waiting list for three years. The Vietnam War Marine Corps veteran said membership and activity dropped before the recent revival. Through mid-June, the post was at 162 members – three more than this year’s goal.

“A lot of the old-timers were passing on, and we needed a tradition for the new guys,” Kakurba said. “(Webb) had good ideas. They started drawing the people in, and little by little we started getting members in. We were right at the bottom of (the department’s) Ninth District) (in membership). Now we’re near the top. New blood and new excitement.

“We decided to try these things … and see if it worked. I think a lot of people are looking for excuses … to support veterans. By trying to do these things, we happened to make it work.

"Whenever people come in, we try to make sure that we’re really welcoming, and we do show them that we have our older members here, and you can learn a lot from them. But we are also here with a lot of young people. A lot of people respond to that.”

A Legionnaire’s battle from an American internment camp to war

As a young teenager living in California in 1940, Casey Kunimara’s daily life was filled with school, friends and sports; he “felt as American as the next kid.” But that all ended on Dec. 7, 1941, a date that changed America forever, as well as the life Kunimura once knew.

Following the attacks on Pearl Harbor, an executive order was issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and 16-year-old Kunimura, his mother and siblings were forced to leave their home in Gilroy and relocate to an internment camp. Though a native-born U.S. citizen, he was detained because of his Japanese ancestry.

But Kunimura’s story following life in camp is one of forgiveness and love for country. After once carrying around an “enemy alien” draft classification card, Kunimura went on to serve with one of the most highly decorated units of World War II – the 442nd Regimental Combat Team – and served in the Korean and Vietnam War. He too has been an active American Legion member for 48 continuous years, serving as Department of Utah commander in 1994, and a 30-year staff member of Utah Boys State.

American Legion National Commander Charles E. Schmidt recently presented Kunimura with an award for his continuous years with Utah Boys State and service to his country.

“America is my country. I’ve always said one thing, ‘My country … right or wrong, my country,’” said 92-year-old Kunimura, who resides in North Ogden, Utah, where he’s a member and past commander of Post 9.

When word reached Kunimura that Pearl Harbor was attacked he “reacted like any other American – I thought I needed to do something to aid my country,” he said. “I did not think of the enemy, Japan, being the ancestral home of my parents. I, being an American citizen, felt like I should do what I could for my country.”

But joining the military like his friends were lining up to do wouldn’t become an option for Kunimura. He was denied service due to his Japanese ancestry. “I was an American and my loyalty was to the only country I knew. This feeling never left my thoughts during the entire trying ordeal over the next few years,” he said.

Kunimura credits his love for America to his upbringing by immigrant parents, who instilled dedication, loyalty and humility. His father emigrated from Hiroshima, Japan, to the United States in 1905, and his mother followed suit in 1923. Kunimura’s father passed away in 1939, leaving his wife and six children to be waiting outside a high school in Gilroy in June 1942 for departure to two internment camps.

Kunimura and his family left their home with only what they could carry, not knowing where they were going or how long they would be gone. They were first sent to live in a horse stall on a rodeo ground in Salinas, Calif., for a few months before taking a three-day train ride to the Poston War Relocation Center (the largest of the 10 American internment camps) in southwest Arizona. It was there that Block 32 became home to Kunimura for a year.

During his time at Poston, Kunimura lived with his family in a small room in a wooden barrack that was surrounded by the hot Arizona desert, trying “to live a normal life as a possible.” He got a job as a chief chef in the mess hall, earning $16 a month to prepare and plan meals, watched movies outdoors, participated in athletics and attended dances with friends. Yet, he longed to leave camp and serve his country, which was still not an option. He found his way out of camp as he was afforded the opportunity to work in Chicago for an auto parts store.

It was during his time in Chicago that an all Japanese-American combat unit – except for its officers – was being formed, and Kunimura’s calling to serve would be possible.

Kunimura joined the U.S. Army 442nd Regimental Combat Team in 1944 after Selective Service reclassified and issued him a draft notice. He joined the unit as a machine gunner, fighting his way through France while his family and friends remained in Poston, “being held prisoners by the very country I was fighting for,” he said. “But my patriotism, devotion to my nation, and love of country could not be denied.”

Kunimura witnessed firsthand the 442nd earn a Congressional Gold Medal in November 2011 for their efforts in waging a successful campaign against Nazis in southern France and northern Italy. In all, the unit earned more than 18,000 awards, inlcuding 21 Medals of Honor. “These proud men proved to the nation of their loyalty and dedication and the right to be called Americans,” he said. “I’m extremely proud to have had the privilege of serving shoulder to shoulder with all those brave, young men and having been a small part of that history.”

Following the end of World War II, Kunimura served in the Korean and Vietnam War, met his wife Dorothy – a Korean War veteran of the Army Auxiliary Army Corps and a member of Post 9 – raised three children, and retired from the military and civil service.

Since his involvement with Utah Boys State began more than 30 years ago, he’s been a counselor, assisted with party elections, and now organizes and helps pass out awards. He’s remained involved in the program because of his “love of country, of the military, of veterans and of the young men to instill upon them the ideas of democracy,” Kunimura said. “The purpose of Boys State is to educate why we have a primary, a general election and elect for various offices. These kids are going to grow up to become our leaders.”

Dorothy has been an integral part of Boys State for just as long, baking cakes and cookies for the young men. “These boys love Dorothy, and she’s making them fat, too,” Kunimura said.

Although Kunimura doesn’t know how much longer he’ll remain on the Boys State staff at his age, he said that his longstanding involvement with The American Legion was a way to “spend a little of my own time to make this country just a little bit better in the long run.”

Delaware Legion family provides rest, fun for wounded warriors

It’s a simple reality of hospital care, be it civilian or military: on weekends, there are fewer staff on duty and fewer things for patients to do.

A group of American Legion family members from the Department of Delaware wanted to change that for wounded servicemembers.

While the Warrior Weekend Program isn’t an official American Legion program, it’s staffed with Legion family members volunteering their time as guides and drivers for the weekend getaways aimed at providing rest, relaxation and fun for the wounded heroes and their loved ones.

Scott Underkoffler, commander of the Sons of The American Legion Detachment of Delaware and vice president of the Warrior Weekend Program, said the program developed after a 2006 visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

“We saw fewer staff (on duty on the weekend),” Underkoffler said. “We said, we’ve got to get them out of here, get them something to do.”

The first weekend getaway took place in early 2007; since then, they’ve averaged seven weekend trips a year. Among the destinations: a bed and breakfast in Rehoboth Beach, Del.; a weekend at Hershey Park, Pa.; and a four-day weekend in Kingston, N.Y., which includes a train ride to New York’s Union Station followed by another train ride to Kingston, as well as escorts by NYPD in New York City and Legion Riders on the way in to Kingston.

Underkoffler said “the whole town” turned out to celebrate the wounded heroes on the Kingston trip. Last weekend’s group of servicemembers saw similar appreciation during their time in Philadelphia, including a couple buying dessert for the group during one of their dinners out and several passers-by thanking them for their service.

The Philadelphia weekend included a private tour of NFL Films across the river in Mt. Laurel, N.J.

“They’ve been so good to us,” said Joe Green, an ambassador for the Warrior Weekend Program.

The weekend also included a tour of the battleship New Jersey and visits to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Not every one of the five wounded servicemembers took part in each of the tours, and that’s OK, Underkoffler noted. The point of the weekend is to give the soldiers an opportunity to get away for the weekend.

It’s one that Sgt. Maj. Sharon Williams of Virginia appreciated.

“It’s a great way to get out and socialize,” she said. “You’re not just sitting in your room feeling down. And there’s a lot of historical stuff here.”

Underkoffler acknowledged that the warriors “become family.” He’s quickly become “Uncle Scott” to Jada and Jayla Bertrand, the five-year-old twins of Anthony and Elena Bertrand, who were making another trip as part of the program.

There are four more Warrior Weekend trips scheduled for 2017: July 21-23, Hershey, Pa.; Sept. 15-17, Chincoteague, Va.; Oct. 6-9, Kingston, N.Y.; and Nov. 3-5, Rehoboth Beach, Del. Wounded servicemembers at Fort Belvoir in Virginia sign up for the trips and are selected by an independent contractor, Underkoffler said.

Garth Miller, one of the Delaware SAL’s sergeants-at-arms and another Warrior Weekend Program ambassador, said they’re not looking to expand the program to more areas, but they’re always looking for ways to fund the program, which is a 501(c)(3) corporation operated entirely by volunteers. Underkoffler said the average cost of each trip is about $4,500.

The cause has been helped the last few years by raffles for Super Bowl tickets. The next fundraiser is a “golfer’s dream raffle” with the drawing to be held March 1, 2018. First prize is two tickets to the final round of the 2018 Masters; second prize is two tickets to the final round of the 2018 U.S Open; and third prize is two tickets to the final round of the 2018 PGA Championship. Each prize includes a hospitality package and two nights lodging.

Green acknowledged that selling raffle tickets isn’t an easy method for fundraising. “Going to the same base year after year can lead to apathy no matter how noble the cause,” he said.

That’s why they’re looking for Legion posts elsewhere, or even individual members, to consider buying tickets to the golfer’s dream raffle. Each ticket costs $20 and only 5,600 will be sold.

For more information about the Warrior Weekend Program, visit www.warriorweekend.net.

Boys Nation gives delegates '97 friends across the United States'

Editor’s note: This is the third of a series of profiles of the Boys Nation 2016 officers. Boys Nation 2017 takes place July 21-29 at Marymount University in Arlington, Va.

Choteau Kammel almost didn’t become the vice president of American Legion Boys Nation 2016.

“I was actually one hand-raise away from dropping out of the vice presidential race,” Kammel recalled. Kammel, of Omaha, Neb., credited North Carolina’s Michael McCray for convincing him to stay in the race.

Kammel ended up getting the Nationalist party nomination for vice president — ironic because his Federalist opponent would be North Carolina’s other Boys Nation representative, Rudy Ogburn.

At the end of the vice presidential debate, Ogburn announced he was withdrawing from the race, all but ensuring Kammel’s victory. It wasn’t one he took lightly, however.

“He gets up there and announces his intent to drop out, I’m sitting there thinking, did I hear him correctly? I’d like to think I was probably doing well in this debate, but I didn’t know. So when he said that, I remember being very surprised, but I wasn’t sure what was happening so I made sure to give my final answer,” Kammel said.

“I have a lot of respect for Rudy, because we’re all 17-year-old males who are stereotypically competitive and don’t like to admit even perceived faults in front of others. I talked to him later that night, I really don’t know what happened but let me give you a hug because it took a lot of guts.”

Kammel acknowledged it took some guts of his own to break out of his comfort zone and run for office.

“I decided I wanted more than just my plane ticket stub and a bunch of friends’ names from my national experience, I might as well throw my hat in the ring,” he said.

Kammel said his high school, Omaha Central, has a long history of sending delegates to Boys Nation, so he knew going into Cornhusker Boys State that he would face high expectations.

Previous Central students told Kammel “make sure you’re focused on the program,” he recalled. “Socializing is important but make sure you’re getting the most you can get out of the educational experience, and a big part of that is talking to the (American) Legion guys.”

Of course, with his experience at Boys State and Boys Nation, it’s been Kammel’s turn to share his experience with those coming after him.

Kammel advised to those selected to Cornhusker Boys State from his school to “embrace the fact that you do have a lot of freedom (at Boys State), but you also have a lot of responsibility, specifically coming from this school.”

As for those going to Boys Nation 2017, or considering trying to go in the future?

“How many guys can say that they have 97 friends across the United States?” Kammel said. “If you have stereotypes about anyone from any state, go to Boys Nation and see those stereotypes fall away.”

Kammel will attend Mississippi State University to study business economics.

Five steps to position yourself for a career change

From Military.com

The careers most touted as likely transitions for veterans may be a perfect fit for you. If you worked in military police and want to transition into law enforcement, that is wonderful -- the pay is supposedly quite nice. If you were a network administrator and want to work in network administration for Facebook or Google, that is great too! Your transition may be a direct one, and you should already be searching for opportunities on the Veterans job finder and using the skills translator to help word your resume so that it stands out in the civilian workforce.

However, what if you were military police but want that network administration job at Google? Or thinking even more outside the box, what if you want to be a video game designer? How about a financial consultant for Goldman Sachs? Do you want to work in the government, say at the State Department as a Japan specialist?

If your career aspirations point you toward a career that seems completely outside of your current capabilities, you don't need to freak out. You served in the military (or are still active) and have the discipline it takes to set your mind to something and have a fairly good chance of achieving it. Yes, nothing is guaranteed, and sometimes the saying that it is a marathon and not a sprint may be very appropriate. But once again, you joined the military and put your life on the line for your country, so why not put a little elbow grease into working to achieve your next goal?

Here's How to Do It:

Be who you want to be, and do it now. In case that is confusing, it simply means that you should start building your skills and your resume, so that when you create the opportunity or said opportunity comes knocking, you are ready. You can prepare in five simple steps, as follows:

  1. Know your industry. If you want to be a game designer, that means playing games. It means finding groups such as those on Meetup.com or at events such as the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, so that you’re discussing the industry with others just as passionate about it as you are. If you want to be the Japan specialist, stay up to date by reading articles in The Economist, or once again, Meetup.com groups. The same holds true about any industry. You have to find out how to keep up to date on everything that is related, so that when you are at a networking event or job interview, you have one more way you can show your passion.

  2. Develop your skills. You not only need to know what is going on in your industry, but you need to know how to do the job. Use the GI Bill to enroll in a full-time degree program, or if you are active or working as a civilian already, look into evening and weekend programs. Find a local game writing, Japanese language, or financial analysis class, as appropriate.

  3. Network. You should always be networking, but it is going to be that much easier when you know your industry and have developed your skills or honed your craft. Get out there and shake hands, smile, and be friendly even if you are dead-tired from working all day and then working on steps one and two in all your free time. You may have a family or other commitments, and you should not make sacrifices there, but you must network. You happen to live at an amazing time when networking can be done one-hundred percent online. Chances are you will be more successful if you are networking at live events and online, but do what works for you and your situation, as long as you are doing the work. The good news is that you already have one big network of people out there willing to help -- your fellow veterans. Do not ignore the veteran community, because they may be the most willing to help you get ahead.

  4. Build the resume. Make sure to include your classes and groups that you are part of on your resume, as well as your military and other relevant experience. Create on your own, whether that means finding independent games to get involved with, a blog on the world financial system, or anything you can use in an interview to show that you not only are passionate about the job, but have taken the initiative and have experience (even if it is limited). Find a part time internship that you can handle on evenings and weekends. Volunteer for a related organization. You should be doing anything that you can to make your resume tell the story of why you belong in this new career.

  5. Make sure everything represents who you want to be. The final step, and an ongoing one throughout, is to make sure your online presence represents this new you. If you have resumes out there on different job sites, make sure to update them. If you don’t have a website, create one -- maybe your new blog will attract the attention of a hiring manager? You do not need a blog. You can stick to a website highlighting who you are, what you are working on, and what you are passionate about. This is true for your twitter account (the short bio you can include there), Facebook, and every other social media or professional online networking site you may be represented on.

Remember, you can be doing all of this to some degree while working full time. If you do not have to work, bravo. Share the secret (or money) so your fellow veterans can devote their time to pursuing their dream careers as well. But while the rest of you wait, keep your eye on the prize and do everything you can to make it a reality. And start NOW.

The GI Bill Then and Now: Panel discussion kicks off centennial exhibit

The author of the Post 9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008, former U.S. Sen. James Webb, found himself in the same company as two granddaughters of American Legion Past National Commander Harry W. Colmery, architect of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, Tuesday evening at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans. In a moderated panel discussion titled “The GI Bill: Then and Now,” many more connections would be made between the two historic measures that became law over six decades apart.

Approximately 200 attendees made their way through the initial outbursts of Tropical Storm Cindy to participate in the event which opened a special six-month American Legion centennial presence at the museum. On display are the original cover and signature pages of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, on loan from the National Archives, and the typed speech, with handwritten editing marks, given by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 22, 1944, after he signed the act into law.

The exhibit also features illustrated panels and touchscreen videos that tell the story of the GI Bill, from the situation in 1943 when tens of thousands of disabled GIs were returning to their home communities in need of support to the post-9/11 rendition that provides education benefits and other opportunities for 21st century veterans. The exhibit also documents the massive effects of the GI Bill on the U.S. economy, national security and establishment of an all-volunteer military.

American Legion Past National Commander Bill Detweiler, one of the founding leaders of the museum, moderated the discussion. Panelists were former Sen. Webb; American Legion Assistant Director of Employment and Education John Kamin; Deputy Under Secretary for Economic Opportunity Curtis Coy and Student Veterans of America President and CEO Jared Lyon.

Webb, a highly decorated Vietnam War Marine Corps officer and former Secretary of the U.S. Navy, told the crowd why he made a reboot of the GI Bill his top priority after he was elected to the Senate in 2007. “With respect to the GI Bill and legacy of it, the first thing to remember is that, although it was continuous concept, it has not been a continuous piece of legislation,” he said, explaining how the package had lost some of its value both to veterans and to the U.S. economy in the decades leading up to the bill he introduced on his first day in office and then adjusted with assistance from The American Legion and other veterans groups.

“I looked at this, both as a veteran and as the father a young Marine in Iraq, and I started saying, if you’re going to call these people the next greatest generation, you should give them the same opportunity for a future that the greatest generation had,” Webb said. “Pay their tuition. Buy their books and give them a monthly stipend.”

His intention was to restore some of the fundamental features that helped the original GI Bill transform the U.S. economy, culture and military. By making the benefits package more generous, and bring it into step with 21st century higher education, Webb mirrored what Colmery and The American Legion pursued for the World War II generation.

And while the overall number of post-9/11 veterans today does not compare with the 16 million who served during World War II, the education program’s popularity is soaring, Coy explained. “Eight or nine years ago, we had 37,000 people going to school on the GI Bill,” he said. “Fast forward, and just last year alone, we had 790,000 people use the GI Bill.”

Coy, who oversees VA education and home loan programs under the Veterans Benefits Administration, explained that online tools, improved benefits for the children of post-9/11 generation and a commitment to education and promotion about the GI Bill have been vital to its growth. “There’s been a whole evolution,” Coy said.

Lyon said nearly half of America’s young veterans are using their GI Bill benefits for college, and they are outperforming other students in the classroom, as well. “Our generation, like our brothers and sisters before us, is incredibly resilient and performing extremely well,” he said, noting that the U.S. Army is hitting its highest recruitment quotas in 15 years largely because of the GI Bill. “A very high percentage – over 80 percent – cite the opportunity for an education, post military service, as one of their primary motivators.

“What we have found further is that two-thirds of that population are just like myself, first-generation college students – the first members of our families to achieve that part of the American dream – an education. Prior to World War II, about 7 percent of Americans who were college age had a bachelor’s degree or higher education. Essentially, if your father didn’t go to college, or you weren’t a white male, there was a very slim chance you would have an opportunity at higher education. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 fundamentally changed that. It democratized higher education and quite literally built the American middle class, educating 7.8 million veterans. Today, what we are seeing is rather remarkable because the trends hold true.”

Lyon said post-9/11 veterans using their GI Bill benefits are achieving 3.34 grade point averages compared to the overall student population average GPA of 2.94. “Quite literally, we are among the most successful students in higher education. The top three majors that we are pursuing are business, STEM and health-related – arguably the most marketable degrees in the U.S. today and vital to the success of the future of our economy.”

Lyon added that a high percentage of student veterans are also assuming leadership roles and are actively engaged in service efforts on the nation’s campuses.

In that way, according to Kamin of The American Legion, the post-9/11 veterans match what the World War II veterans proved after the original GI Bill was enacted and fears arose that veterans would create “…hobo campuses. What they discovered instead was that veterans were the best students they had.”

And with both bills, Kamin explained, more important than graduation rates and economic impacts is the simple recognition that the GI Bill shows veterans that the nation appreciates their service. “Servicemembers were coming home to a country that was saying, ‘We believe in you.’ That, to me, was the greatest impact of the GI Bill.”

Mina Steen and Breese Tomick, granddaughters of Colmery, said the original architect of the measure couldn’t have agreed more. “The honor goes to keeping the story alive of the potential of veterans,” Steen said during the audience remarks portion of the event. “I can tell you he would be very happy about that today.”

American Legion Executive Director Verna Jones told the crowd that education benefits are always in need of review and adjustment. She explained that the Legion is actively working with the SVA and other groups, as well as VA and Congress, to improve benefits for reservists called to active duty and to protect veterans whose for-profit schools close during their GI Bill-funded educations.

“The GI Bill is not something The American Legion did,” Jones said. “It is something The American Legion does.”

The exhibit is built to travel to other venues around the country to help The American Legion tell its centennial story. “As an achievement to highlight heading into our centennial celebration, it’s important to consider that the GI Bill connects the dots from our founding World War I generation to the post-9/11 veterans who use the benefit today,” Jones said. “The GI Bill must (always) poise veterans for success after service in the U.S. armed forces.”

Vietnam veteran looking for family of lost World War II dog tags

A Vietnam veteran living in the Czech Republic is trying to track down the family of a World War II veteran whose dog tags and bracelet were recently found underground.

The dog tags (No: 32328426) of Joseph R. Ely were discovered last month near the village of Tremosna, in the southern Bohemia region of the Czech Republic, Manuel Frank Van Eyck said. “I am investigating a missing U.S. Army personnel from World War II,” said Van Eyck, who noted the person who discovered the dog tags wishes to remain anonymous. “There are some who died in or around POW camps and their remains were not located to this day.”

Ely was born Aug. 26, 1918, in California and his last known residence was in Suffolk, N.Y. On April 30, 1942, Ely enlisted at Fort Jay Governors Island, N.Y. His civilian occupation was listed as a houseman.

Van Eyck would like to return the dog tags and bracelet to Ely’s family. Inscribed on the back of the bracelet are the words, “Love Shirley.”

Anyone with information on Ely or his family may contact Van Eyck at mfvaneyck@gmail.com.

Legion attends historic luncheon at National Press Club

The National Press Club in Washington, D.C., held a luncheon June 19 with U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to discuss a number of important issues facing the U.S. military.

Staff from The American Legion's Washington office gathered alongside more than 200 people inside the club’s ballroom for a question-and-answer session with Dunford, moderated by National Press Club President Jeff Ballou. Topics included the latest strategy for defeating the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, challenges from North Korea, cyber warfare, weapons acquisition and recruiting and strengthening U.S. alliances.

“We just had a very tense shoot down of a Syrian jet by U.S. forces and we had a very ominous statement from Russia that plays into the whole de-confliction agreement between the countries, essentially saying anything west of the Euphrates, we’re shooting down,” Ballou said as he began the session. “What is your reaction to that? Have there been any developments? Do you have any updates on where that stands? Is de-confliction gone?”

Dunford’s response was that the United States has worked very hard for the last eight months on de-confliction with the Russian Federation and pro-regime forces. The purpose was to make sure air crews were safe; personnel on the ground were safe; and that the U.S. could prosecute the Defeat ISIS campaign in Syria.

Dunford said the Russian Federation has indicated that their purpose in Syria, like that of the United States, is to defeat ISIS. “All of our operations in and around Iraq and southern Syria are designed specifically to get after ISIS and we (the United States, Russian Federation and pro-regime forces) have agreed in the past that operations that the coalition was conducting in Syria were effectively degrading ISIS’s capability. We’ll work to restore that de-confliction chain in the next few hours.”

When asked if he’s been in touch with a Russian counterpart, Dunford said he has not as of Monday morning. He has, however, met with the Russian counterpart twice this year and communicated another five or six times.

Deployment of additional forces in Afghanistan. Dunford said no decision has been made with regard to sending an additional 4,000 troops to Afghanistan. In terms of forces on the ground, the president did choose to delegate that decision to Department of Defense Secretary James Mattis, he said.

“This is what is important and probably has been under reported,” Dunford said. “Secretary Mattis’s decision about additional forces in Afghanistan will be made in the context of a broader strategy review for South Asia that is ongoing, and is expected to report back probably sometime in the middle of July. So, it won’t be just about Afghanistan. There are a number of interdependent variables that bear on the problem inside of Afghanistan across the region.”

Military strategy for Afghanistan ready by mid-July. Dunford and Mattis had an opportunity to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee June 13. When Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain asked about whether or not there is a strategy for Afghanistan, Dunford stated that, “Mattis said that number one, we agree that Afghanistan is not where we want it to be and we have spent the last couple of months discussing where it might go in the future. And he, as I will today, indicated to chairman McCain that sometime in the middle of July, we would have that strategic review complete.”

Dunford said he and Mattis will consult with McCain and the other members of Congress “as the coming weeks go on.”

Violent extremism/defeating transnational terrorism. Dunford said the tragic loss of life associated with violent extremism is a big issue. “I think the military dimension of that particular problem is working with local partners to create the conditions where people can be safe at home and don’t have the need to go and become refugees,” he said. “Obviously, (we can provide) some immediate support in the form of water, supplies and food, and making sure that the conditions are conducive to nongovernmental organizations.”

In addition, Dunford said violent extremism is not over with the ISIS defeat. That’s why it’s important to get as many countries as possible to cooperate in:

• intelligence sharing;

• information sharing;

• effective action;

• limiting the freedom of movement of foreign fighters;

• limiting their ability to share resources; and

• eroding the effectiveness of their narrative.

“I think we should all be braced for a long fight, and that’s why we emphasize making sure that we have the broadest network possible of partners to help deal with this challenge,” he said. “These are extraordinarily complex, if not wicked, problems we’re dealing with. Beware of those with too much confidence that they have all the answers.”

Read Dunford’s full remarks here. Click here for a video of the luncheon.

Department Spotlight: Washington, D.C., Boys State program returns for second year

For the second straight year, The American Legion Department of Washington, D.C., will host its Boys State program this July at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters building. The program was reintroduced last year after a nearly 50-year hiatus.

“We’re excited about (the Boys State program), and I think we’ll do well this year. Our goal is to enhance this program every year so it gets better," said George Roundtree, Boys State director and department adjutant.

A small group of rising high school seniors from the area will participate in a series of informative discussions and question-and-answer sessions, as well as tour Capitol Hill and the Pentagon and hear presentations from staff members there. They will also visit a few embassies "to get a chance to see what the corporate world is about and different countries,” Roundtree said. “We have a vast population of people here in D.C. that the boys can (learn from). We want them to get a wide variety of what the community, the city is like.”

Last year during the program, the young men heard presentations from D.C. City Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Sen. Michael D. Brown, D-D.C., and Ward 5 School Board Representative Mark Jones, and attended a session of Congress to see their lawmakers in action.

Roundtree said Boys State is an exemplary program as the young men learn about the democratic process and how the republican form of government works at the state and national levels. But for him, Boys State is not only a duty, it’s his passion. Having served in the military for 41 years, he said the program gives him a sense of purpose and calling to help other young boys.

“We’re going to let them get around and see what life is all about, other than high school,” he said. “We even teach them how to be mayors (through our) Mock Mayor program where the students will have a mayor and a council just like in the real world. So, it’s an interesting program and they will learn immensely.”

Washington, D.C., Boys State sessions will begin at 9 a.m. and conclude at 4:30 p.m. every day from July 10-14.

American Legion Boys State is among the most respected and selective educational programs of government instruction for U.S. high school students. The American Legion believes that educating youth about the basic ideals and principles of government will help ensure the survival of this country’s democracy.

Boys State gives young men and women a lasting foundation for success, both personally and professionally, by:

• Developing leadership and pride in American citizens;

• Educating citizens about our system of government;

• Instilling a greater understanding of American traditions; and

• Stimulating a desire to maintain a democratic government process within the republic.

“The goal is to prepare them for college, prepare them for the world,” Roundtree said. “They get an advanced knowledge.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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