This year marks the centennial anniversary of the American Legion and the organization celebrated it with a major legislative victory.
The nonprofit has worked to give membership in the American Legion to military personnel who served in non-combat conflicts, like the Cold War and the Iranian Hostage Crisis, with the LEGION Act - which stands for Let Everyone Get Involved In Opportunities for National Service. Previously, only combat personnel who served in wars that were recognized by Congress, including World War II and the Vietnam War, could be members.
According to the American Legion website, 1,600 military personnel were killed or wounded during previously undeclared periods of war.
The LEGION Act, which was introduced in the Senate in February by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, and a companion bill introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Ben Cline, R-Lexington, and Lou Correa, D-California, were signed into law on July 30 by President Donald Trump.
Since the bill was enacted, local American Legion posts have seen some growth. John Kokernak, who serves as adjutant for the American Legion Giles B. Cook Post 53 in Front Royal, said that his post had six members join the Legion since July. The post's membership is 329 members.
“It has helped,” he said. “We’ve had a different number of posts in the valley who have expressed concern over the previous restrictive gates to join the American Legion.”
Kokernak said people have expressed concern over the different types of veteran groups. He said since groups like the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars were classified as “wartime veterans organizations” it made it clear which organizations could take which members.
“The LEGION Act has blurred the line a little bit,” Kokernak said.
Tom Drinkwater, the first vice commander of American Legion Post 199 in Woodstock, said the post has also seen growth. He said the post has gained six new members since July, including one member under the new guidelines put forth by the LEGION Act. Post 199 has 378 members.
“It opens up a new class of people who are able to join, which is very good for the Legion,” he said. “We just need to make people aware of it.”
The enactment of the LEGION Act came as local American Legion posts have suffered drops in membership due to the passing of World War II and Korean War veterans. Kokernak said that posts have been trying to recruit younger veterans, notably veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, to join the Legion but it has been difficult.
“A lot of the younger veterans have been reluctant or too busy to join veteran service organizations,” he said. “Now that their service is over, they have families, their kids have their own activities, and mom and dad are working full time. All their spare time is spent on their families. What I’ve told people is, if you can’t fully commit to the organization, we’d like to speak for them.”
Kokernak said the additional members allow the post to speak to Congress on their behalf about the importance of the armed forces and to fight to keep benefits for veterans.
“A lot of these kids come out of the service who have injuries we can’t see,” he said. “Some people may not see it as an issue now, but once they get older and their bodies and minds get weaker, they’re going to need help.”
Kokernak said the American Legion also helps the community beyond just veterans and their families.
“Too many people look at the American Legion posts and think we’re just a bar,” he said. “We work with schools to provide students scholarships and other benefits. A lot of the things we do, the general public doesn’t know about.”