Legion, Congress right to expand membership criteria

Posted 8/13/19

For 100 years, The American Legion has offered assistance to all of our country’s veterans — from World War I to the Vietnam War to the War on Terror.

But, until last month, certain …

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Legion, Congress right to expand membership criteria


For 100 years, The American Legion has offered assistance to all of our country’s veterans — from World War I to the Vietnam War to the War on Terror.

But, until last month, certain veterans were ineligible to join the Legion as members. If a man or woman did not serve during an officially recognized period of war, they couldn’t join the “wartime veterans organization.” That left out millions of service members who fought for or otherwise served this country in conflicts ranging from the Cold War to the Iran Hostage Crisis.

In our view, although the policy might have been justifiable, it’s awfully unfair — and it was a sore point among many Legion members for decades.

“The inherent problem we faced for too long was the stigma of inequality of service,” Mike Cooke, commander of The American Legion in Wyoming, said in a recent statement. “... Knowing firsthand that some did not qualify for membership into The American Legion because their service was during non-recognized periods of conflict [like] ‘The Cold War’ was disheartening to myself and a majority of The American Legion family.”

Thankfully, that all changed last month with the passage of the LEGION (Let Everyone Get Involved in Opportunities for National Service) Act. The legislation recognizes that the United States has effectively been at war since the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 — noting a dozen previously unrecognized “war eras” that include conflicts ranging from those in the Persian Gulf to Greece.

It makes every U.S. veteran who served this country since December 1941 eligible to join The American Legion.

Exactly as we would hope, Congress passed the LEGION Act on unanimous votes in July and President Donald Trump signed it almost immediately after receiving it.

“Wyoming’s veterans deserve to be recognized for their service to our country,” said U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who was among 19 Republicans and 17 Democrats to sponsor the legislation. Barrasso said the act will ensure that the “long overdue honor” of American Legion membership is made available to thousands of Wyoming veterans.

Cooke shared similar views on behalf of Wyoming’s Legionnaires, saying the newly eligible veterans “are finally getting the recognition they rightfully deserve and I for one am eager to welcome them.”

We’re pleased to see all veterans getting their due — though in our view, this should have happened a lot sooner.

At nearly every American Legion national convention that took place over the last 40 years, leaders of the organization were asked to consider taking steps to expand membership eligibility to include more veterans, the Legion’s website says.

However, every year, Legion leaders balked at asking Congress to broaden the eligibility; a recent article on the Legion site says they were concerned the group would cease to be a “wartime veterans organization” and jeopardize their tax status.

The LEGION Act solved that quandary by officially recognizing the 12 eras of conflicts that led to nearly 800 combat casualties since World War II.

It’s a shame that this country couldn’t find a way to officially recognize the sacrifices of these men and women and many others years earlier, but we appreciate that lawmakers and Legion leaders worked to right that wrong now.

Doug Hensala, the adjutant for the American Legion in Wyoming, said the recognition of the sacrifices made by those killed or wounded is the most important part of the LEGION Act.

“It honors all who have served and now will have the opportunity to continue that service as members of The American Legion,” Hensala added.

Indeed, the Legion does more than support veterans — those veterans continue to support their communities. Hughes-Pittinger Post 26 in Powell, for example, helps distribute commodities, supports the Powell Pioneers baseball team and youth sent to Girls and Boys States, among other efforts.

We appreciate the support the Legion provides to its community and veterans — and we believe the expanded eligibility falls more in-line with the organization’s broad, welcoming mission.

As American Legion National Commander Brett Reistad put it, “A veteran is a veteran. It does not matter whether a veteran fought enemies on foreign soil, protected our interests in an ocean far away or secured our national defense here at home. Their service is what matters most.”