Outdated requirements have made it difficult for many veterans to join their local American Legions.
Others could only be social members because their time in the armed services didn’t fall during a time of war, a requirement for becoming a full member of the American Legion. It took veteran Arnie Althoff of Hankinson about 11 years to join the Legion after returning from Vietnam, which was first termed a conflict because Americans didn’t like the word war, he said.
Called a baby killer, not being able to join Hankinson’s American Legion Eberhard Post 88 was a further slap when he returned from serving in the U.S. Air Force from 1960-65.
“I raised my hand when Vietnam broke out. You put your life on the line, then you came home and couldn’t even join the American Legion because Vietnam wasn’t considered a war. I knew it was a war,” Althoff said.
Wednesday, President Trump signed a bill declaring the U.S. has been in a state of war since Dec. 7, 1941. The American Legion sought the declaration as a way to honor about 1,600 U.S. service members killed or wounded during previously undeclared periods of war.
The LEGION Act (Let Everyone Get Involved In Opportunities for National Service Act) also opens the door for about 6 million veterans to access American Legion programs and benefits for which they previously had not been eligible. Now that legislation has been signed, the American Legion’s eligibility criteria immediately changes from seven war eras to two — April 6, 1917 to Nov. 11, 1918 and Dec. 7, 1941 to a time that will later be determined by the federal government. No other restrictions to American Legion membership are changed.
Support for new LEGION Act
Eberhard Post 88 Commander Dick Crooks fully supports the LEGION Act. Requirements about the terms of service were created after World War I, the “war to end all wars,” he said, and did not take into account the international turmoil this country has been embroiled in since. The U.S. has been in a state of war ever since those early requirements were drafted, he said.
Crooks served in the U.S. Navy from 1962 until 1991. He did not have Althoff’s problems joining the Legion when he got out of service because Vietnam already had been classified as a war by 1991. Crooks joined the American Legion because it was natural for veterans of his era to become Legionnaires and because of its work for veteran benefits, he said.
Althoff wished the LEGION Act had come sooner. He saw firsthand how frustrating it was for veterans to be excluded from this national organization because their service didn’t fall within specified timelines, Althoff said. Because many Legionnaires are elderly, it has become tougher in recent years to maintain membership, he said.
“When election time comes around, people turn around and look to the back of the room, only there isn’t anyone in the back anymore. We are getting to be fewer and fewer,” Althoff said.
For the first time ever this year, Eberhard Post 88 did not have a 21-gun salute when flying the U.S. flag during graveside services on Memorial Day this year because there weren’t enough members to man the guns, he said.
Provisions were made recently to allow veterans who did not fall within the Legion’s prescribed periods of war to join as social members, meaning they could not hold post, state or national offices.
“A number of people wanted to join and weren’t exactly pleased they could only be social members. This takes that negative away,” Crooks said, who hopes the LEGION Act means more veterans will join the American Legion now.