American Legion national commander talks recruitment and mental health
January 30, 2014
Tom Riesenberg (right), a health technician, talks about services and the Carroll VA Clinic facility during a tour with Daniel M. Dellinger (left), national commander for the American Legion. Dellinger was in Iowa this week visiting Legion posts and held a press conference earlier Wednesday. Dellinger was also the keynote speaker at a dinner that evening at the Breda Legion Hall.
The American Legion will continue efforts to help service members and veterans cope with mental scars said National Commander Dan Dellinger during a visit to the Carroll post Wednesday afternoon.
In 2012, the number of active-duty service members who committed suicide was higher than the number of service members killed in a war zone.
"We're aware of the issue," said Dellinger, citing a 2009 task force created by the Legion to study post-traumatic-stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. The findings, titled "The War Within," were delivered to every member of Congress.
"We're trying to get it out to where it's not a sickness. It's an effect of war. You heard about it for many years - shell shock, battle fatigue," Dellinger said. "Unfortunately when VA started, they weren't equipped for those wounds. They would give servicemen and -women pills and tell them to go sit in a corner and it'd be fine."
Dellinger sees a shortage of mental-health specialists - in general, society is not prepared to deal with battle-related issues on a daily basis, he said. The Legion has been involved in efforts to ensure VA caregivers are trained to identify symptoms, such as anxiety. It advocates for alternative treatments, ranging from acupuncture to service dogs.
The organization also has a program in which counselors spend three months with service members and their families before they are deployed, assist the families while the service members are deployed, and stay with the families again when they return. The counselors watch and train family and friends on the signs of potential mental-health issues, including anxiety and subtle changes in behavior.
In Iowa, the Legion provides a service officer in each county to help veterans file VA claims. It also conducts annual inspections on VA hospitals, reporting its findings to Congress. Dellinger toured the Carroll VA clinic Wednesday afternoon.
"The VA needs to be held accountable," Dellinger said.
There is currently a backlog of more than 400,000 claims, a number that had been decreasing until the government shutdown in 2013, he said, adding claims should be addressed in a both timely and accurate manner.
The Legion has also worked to support female service members as the role of women in the military has evolved, said Dellinger.
During the Vietnam era, only 8 percent of military forces were comprised of women. Today that percentage has increased to 20 percent, but only 8 percent are taking advantage of their VA benefits.
"We've fought very hard for VA to make sure they take care of women's needs" including addressing sexual trauma, said Dellinger, other American Legion efforts to advocate for female veterans include establishing exterior entrances to the women's clinics, providing an area for the women who need to bring their children, and providing access to a female chaplain for women who are more comfortable talking to a fellow female, said Dellinger.
But the organization's power comes from its membership. Though there are 16 million veterans eligible to join the American Legion, the organization's current membership is only 2.4 million, or less than 15 percent, a statistic that hampers its ability to advocate on Capitol Hill, said Dellinger.
"I was told by a senator a couple years ago, 'When you all get up around 14 million, come see us,'" he recalled. "We're the second-best-kept secret other than the Masonic Lodge. We don't tell people who we are and what we do."
To recruit new members, and especially young members, Legion members need to reach out to known veterans in communities, as well as current and returning servicemen and servicewomen, and show them how the organization can help them, said Dellinger. In addition to assistance with VA claims, the Legion can provide temporary financial assistance, helping cover bills or provide food for service members and their families, particularly in situations where they catch themselves short between paychecks while a parent is deployed, said Dellinger.
The last decade has seen some of the largest deployments of troops since WWII, added Kathy Nees, American Legion Department of Iowa programs director. The Legion responded at the state level by compiling a database of volunteers including plumbers, electricians, heating specialists and lawn-care providers, to assist families with repairs and maintenance while the primary providers were away, Nees explained.
"It wasn't always for free, but a lot of the time, the wives get taken (financially). Someone is going to take advantage of that," said Nees. "When we had a volunteer go along with it, then things became a little more reasonable, so even if volunteers couldn't do the work, they knew somebody who could, and could at least do it at cost, which would save them hundreds of dollars sometimes."
Nees, a native of Glidden, agreed with Dellinger that Legion members should take a more active role in recruitment. She has been a member of the Glidden post for 20 years.
"I was in the military nine years, and I hadn't been back in Glidden 24 hours, and the guys are saying 'Come up to the Legion, there's a meeting tonight.' I think it's a tradition the American Legion had. WWII guys were grabbed by the arm - you were just coming back from the war, you didn't have any choice - you joined the Legion," Nees recalled with a laugh. "I think maybe we need to get back to some of those traditions."
OTHER TALKING POINTS
But the Legion isn't all about veterans, Dellinger said - the organization branches out in communities as well, though the community members often have little idea what the Legion does. This community involvement can take the form of scholarships, baseball tournaments, student speech and essay contests and sponsorship of youth organizations, such as a Boy Scout Troop. The Legion chapters also organize parades and programs on military holidays, such as Memorial Day.
According to local post commander Lloyd Drees, many of these examples can be seen throughout Carroll. The Carroll post also prides itself on its honor guard, which presents colors at local events and attends funerals and burials, even if the deceased veterans are not Legion members.
In other legislative efforts, the American Legion is fighting cuts made to military pensions that will cut retirement pay for veterans less than 62 years old by 1 percent for 10 years. It is also supporting certification programs that would allow returning service men and women to apply training received during military service to the civilian job market.
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