More veterans eligible to join American Legion

Posted 8/13/19

Millions of veterans around the country — including an estimated 10,000 service members in Wyoming — are now eligible to join The American Legion under a new federal law.

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More veterans eligible to join American Legion


Millions of veterans around the country — including an estimated 10,000 service members in Wyoming — are now eligible to join The American Legion under a new federal law.

Following Congress’ unanimous passage and President Donald Trump’s signing of the LEGION Act last month, all U.S. veterans who’ve honorably served since the start of World War II can become Legion members.

Prior to the act’s passage, membership in The American Legion was limited to veterans who served during six federally-designated war eras. Those who served in conflicts like the Cold War and other less-known conflicts were not eligible.

Mike Cooke, commander of The American Legion Department of Wyoming, said that created a stigma around “inequality of service.”

“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,” Cooke said in a statement.

Russell Stafford, the commander of the Hughes-Pittinger Post 26 in Powell, said the gap in eligibility was a source of complaints among some local veterans.

But things changed on July 30, when Trump put his signature on the LEGION (Let Everyone Get Involved in Opportunities for National Service) Act.

In the legislation — which was co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. — Congress officially recognized a dozen new war eras. They range from U.S. involvement in the Salvadoran Civil War to the Persian Gulf Conflicts and the Cold War.

The resolution notes that approximately 1,575 service members died or were wounded while serving in those 12 eras, “proving that the United States has been conducting deadly wartime service to protect the country consistently since Dec. 7, 1941.”

Stafford called the LEGION Act “a great way to get all of our veterans recognized and covered,” though the grim part is that it recognizes “there’s never been a time of peace” since the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Cooke, the Legion’s commander in Wyoming, said the service members “are finally getting the recognition they rightfully deserve” — and that he’s eager to welcome the newly eligible veterans into the organization.

Beyond making more veterans eligible for Legion membership, they’ll also eventually become eligible for additional VA benefits, Stafford said; Barrasso called it a “long overdue honor.”

The American Legion has always offered assistance and services to all veterans. However, only veterans who’ve served during a federally recognized “war era” can become members, as the Legion was chartered by Congress as a “wartime veterans organization.”

For decades, some Legion members lobbied the organization to include those who served in the Cold War and other conflicts. One of the reasons cited was that a change could boost membership, which has been dropping in recent years.

The Legion studied the eligibility issue in a 1985 report, but ultimately decided that “we would remain an organization of ‘wartime veterans,’” says a 2010 Legion leadership FAQ. Opening up membership to veterans from non-war eras could impact the Legion’s tax and legal status, National Adjutant Daniel Wheeler recently explained.

But last year, the Legion came up with the framework of the LEGION Act as a way to continue being a group of wartime veterans while including all of those who’ve served this country since World War II.

The Legion had urged its members to lobby for the bill, known formally as S.504, and to encourage Congress to recognize the lesser-known conflicts as war eras.

“When is a war a war?” National Commander Brett Reistad asked in a May op-ed in the Legion’s magazine. “When bullets, bombs, missiles or weapons of mass destruction are aimed at American servicemembers. Size, scope, media coverage — none of it matters when someone is trying to kill you.”

Reistad added that, “Whether a veteran served during the Cold War or a hot one, he or she took the same oath to support and defend our Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. This legislation is a great way to say ‘thank you.’”

Stafford said he hopes the legislation will boost local membership in the organization, which works to support veterans and the local community.

“We do want to have our veterans continue to serve and help and do all they can,” he said.

For more information about joining American Legion Hughes-Pittinger Post 26 in Powell, contact the post at 307-754-3411.