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Legion News

Commander applauds Senate for clarifying '40-mile rule'

The head of The American Legion has praised the Senate for unanimously passing an amendment to remind the Department of Veterans Affairs that it is obligated to provide non-VA care when it cannot offer that same treatment at one of its own facilities within 40-miles driving distance from a veteran’s home.

The call to VA to clarify its stance was embodied in an amendment, offered by Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., to the Senate's budget resolution (S. Con. Res. 11).

“This bill simply calls on VA to do what it already had the authority to do,” National Commander Michael D. Helm said. “Intent is everything. When Congress passed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act last year, it once again gave VA this authority. I say ‘once again’ because VA had this authority on a fee-basis long before the Choice act. Despite this authority, VA was trying to find loopholes by denying people who were near VA clinics that did not offer the needed services the right to use an alternative provider.

"We applaud Sen. Jerry Moran for writing this amendment, even though it’s a shame that such a common sense measure needs to be spelled out repeatedly for VA. We call on the House to pass this measure quickly and send an unmistakable message to VA.”

Moran emphasized the importance of providing non-VA health care to veterans during Helm’s congressional testimony on Feb. 25. The Kansas senator calculated the distance from Helm’s home in Norcatur, Kan., to the nearest VA facilities.

“It’s 267 miles to Denver,” Moran said. “It’s 287 miles to Wichita. It’s 287 miles to Omaha and the nearest CBOC (Community Based Outpatient Center) is 100 miles away. I appreciate the perspective that this commander will bring about caring for all veterans regardless of where they live in the United States.”

ESPN to expand coverage of Legion World Series

ESPN will expand its live coverage of The American Legion World Series (ALWS) to broadcast two semifinal games, Aug. 17, on its ESPNU channel in addition to the championship game on Aug. 18, the network announced today.

The four days of “pool play” leading up to the semifinals will continue to be aired by ESPN through its webcasting service - ESPN3.

The two semifinal games will be shown on ESPNU at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. EDT on Aug. 17, and the championship airs at 7 p.m. the following day on the same channel.

From Aug. 13-16, three games of "pool play" - pitting each of the eight regional champions against each other - will be streamed live daily on ESPN3.com at approximately noon, 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

ESPN’s announcement that it will air the semifinal games of the 89th Annual American Legion Baseball World Series is an expansion of the relationship between ESPN and The American Legion. That relationship began in the summer of 2011, when the sports network streamed each of the series games online. The American Legion and the Shelby (N.C.) Baseball World Series Committee inked a five-year contract last year with ESPN for the broadcasting giant to televise the ALWS championship game

This year, ESPN will again televise the ALWS championship game on ESPNU as part of the channel's “Championship Tuesday.” Last year's broadcast was a major milestone; The American Legion Baseball World Series championship game had not been shown on live TV in 35 years. ESPNU reaches nearly 80 million viewers.

In all, the ALWS will feature 15 games this year – 12 games of “pool play” between the eight regional champions, two semifinal contests and a championship. “Pool play” is divided by two divisions, the “Stars division” and the “Stripes division,” each of which features four teams. The winner of one division faces the runner-up of the other division in a semifinal game, with the two winners advancing to the championship.

Now in its 89th year, the American Legion Baseball World Series is played annually at Keeter Stadium in host city Shelby, N.C. The five-day event features entertainment, competition and plenty of America's pastime.

Each year, thousands of Legion Baseball teams, sponsored by American Legion posts, compete nationally for a chance to be named ALWS champion.

Commander: Kids climbing memorial a 'teachable moment'

“A teachable moment” is how American Legion National Commander Michael D. Helm characterized a viral photograph of children climbing on the Vietnam Women’s Memorial. The photo began circulating on social media earlier this week and has raised ire from organizations and patriotic citizens.

Helm said that the incident shows that Americans, or at least some Americans, may need to be reminded of the proper way to show respect for their country and the men and women who have served it.

“I am not angry with the children in the photograph who probably did not understand the significance of their actions and weren’t intending to be disrespectful," Helm said. "I do not know enough about the circumstances to know if their parents or caretakers were aware of it.

"But when I hear stories of joggers running through the grounds of the Vietnam Memorial or of people speaking loudly near the Tomb of the Unknowns, I can’t help but think that America needs a refresher course on dignity, reverence and respect. Baseball caps should come off when the Star-Spangled Banner is played and everybody should stand. The Internet is showing us that these type of incidents are no longer isolated but are sadly becoming too common.”

Legion testimony focuses on changes to VA laws

At a March 24 congressional hearing, The American Legion provided written and oral statements addressing positions on pending legislation before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity.

Legislation highlighted in the Legion statements included:

  • Reducing Barriers for Veterans Education Act of 2015

  • Increasing the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability to Veterans Act of 2015

  • Ensuring VA Employee Accountability Act

  • GI Bill Education Quality Enhancement Act of 2015

  • GI Bill Fairness Act of 2015

Steve Gonzalez, assistant director of The American Legion’s Veterans Employment and Education Division, conveyed the Legion’s position on key pieces of pending legislation regarding changes to the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014.

“While we support much of the proposed legislation, there are a few areas that could benefit from further guidance and improvement,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said The American Legion was gratified that in 2014 Congress passed legislation that included among its provisions one that effectively requires public universities and colleges that participate in the Post-9/11 GI Bill to provide in-state tuition to veterans and dependents using those GI bill benefits, regardless of how long they have lived in the state.

Many states either currently assist all or certain veterans by recognizing them as in-state students for purposes of attending a public educational institution or are in the process of making rule changes necessary to comply with the in-state tuition provision.

Waivers are available for states that can’t meet the current July 1, 2015, implementation date allowing them additional time to comply with the federal requirement.

“It is not necessary to delay the implementation of this important change to July 1, 2016,” Gonzalez added.

Regarding the Increasing the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability to Veterans Act of 2015, The American Legion supports accountability at all levels within VA and transparency.

Reacting to the firing of Phoenix VA Healthcare System Director in November of last year, American Legion National Commander Mike Helm said in November that “this is one long-overdue step in a journey that is far from over. Unfortunately, as we all soon discovered after the story broke last April, this problem was not isolated to Phoenix. It was widespread, and we expect to see additional consequences, even criminal charges if they are warranted, for anyone who knowingly misled veterans and denied them access to medical services.”

"The American Legion believes it is important to ensure there is accountability at all levels within VA and that the process is completely transparent," the Legion's written testimony stated. "Where VA employees are found to have engaged in wrongdoing, The American Legion supports the appointment of a special prosecutor to be assigned to investigate and vigorously prosecute any VA employees engaged in fraudulent practices designed to improperly award bonuses or other financial or meritorious awards to the perpetrator. While those in the Senior Executive Service can and should receive performance bonuses when their performance is exemplary, The American Legion believes any bonuses need to be tied clearly to quantitative and qualitative measures. There must be an open process for determining these awards that all stakeholders can examine to determine the propriety of the awarded bonuses.

"This legislation, while it is helpful toward achieving these ends in some ways, has some sections which still raise concerns about the manner of their implementation. The American Legion supports increased accountability, and those employees found guilty of having committed crimes at the expense of the veterans entrusted to their care should never profit from those crimes. To achieve bonuses based on manipulation and lies undercuts any trust with the veterans’ community. Requiring additional transparency about SES performance outcomes is also laudable and supported by The American Legion."

The American Legion recognizes the importance of reforming the bonus system and indeed the management culture within VA, Gonzalez said. He added that the Legion applauds initial efforts conducted by VA Secretary Robert McDonald to begin that process, as well as the diligence of this committee to direct oversight efforts toward that task. "This legislation has great intentions, and the portions related to adding transparency to the system and preventing employees from profiting at the cost of veterans are strong," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez told lawmakers that The American Legion supports some portions of the bill but believes additional work is necessary to support it entirely.

Gonzalez concluded his remarks conveying the Legion’s continued dedication to ensuring the welfare of veterans across the nation. “With further work, perhaps more of the legislation could be supported, and The American Legion looks forward to working with this committee to ensure impactful legislation is passed toward this end,” he said.

Legion pushes for DoD-VA collaboration on pay, benefits

The House Committee on Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel heard concerns from The American Legion at a hearing March 25 to review the Military Compensation and Modernization Commission’s most recent recommendations to change the way our nation pays and provides retirement benefits to those who served in the U.S. Armed Forces.

John Stovall, director of The American Legion’s National Security and Foreign Relations Division, presented oral testimony on behalf of the Legion.

“The American Legion was chiefly mindful of three guiding concerns,” Stovall told the subcommittee. “First, to preserve and protect the integrity and strength of the all-volunteer force, to recognize that many of these recommendations are interconnected by their very nature and considering reform means to consider the impact they will have not solely on the force but on the other recommendations, and recognition that some proposals will have profound impacts on the Department of Defense and other agencies of the government, especially the VA.”

After more than a decade of fighting America’s wars, members of the armed forces now face massive troop drawdowns to force strength figures not seen since prior to World War II. They face drastic sequestration cuts that disproportionately force the military to shoulder the burden of reducing the national budget deficit.

The American Legion believes strongly in protecting the integrity of the all-volunteer force, Stovall explained. As such, he added, The American Legion is committed to opposing any changes to the military system which would reduce the incentive to enlist or re-enlist. “The American Legion urges Congress to maintain continuous oversight of DoD personnel policies to ensure satisfactory retention, recruitment, morale, health and effectiveness of the armed forces,” he said.

The Legion is committed to ensuring that any benefit in force at the time of initial enlistment is a “sacred promise that must remain in force throughout the entire military career and retirement of a servicemember,” Stovall testified.

“Several of the proposals have direct impacts on other agencies of the government, most specifically the VA,” Stovall said.

The American Legion has long called for better collaboration between DoD and VA. There are concerns, however, about the impact of proposed changes to education.

American Legion written testimony also indicated that recommendations indicate that education programs such as the Montgomery GI Bill are redundant, yet provide no recognition that the Montgomery GI Bill has provisions that make it more effective than other programs for veterans seeking on-the-job training or apprenticeship programs to complete their transition process from military to civilian workforce.

Because of the interconnected nature of the military and veteran side of the equation in the field of education benefits, The American Legion urged the committee to reach out and conduct joint hearings with their counterparts on Veterans Affairs committee, to explore the impact of these proposed changes both to active-duty service members as well as veterans.

Because decisions about education benefits are likely to have ramifications on both sides of the active duty-veteran divide, The American Legion encourages robust discussion on the topic between all stakeholders.

Stovall concluded his statement reinforcing The American Legion’s eagerness to be an active participant in forthcoming conversations regarding the recommendations.

Named for The American Legion

U.S. Route 281 is 1,872 miles long, bisecting the nation from Canada to Mexico and passing through six states. Among U.S. highways containing three digits, it is the longest. It is also known as The American Legion Memorial Highway. The American Legion State Forest in Connecticut offers hiking and canoeing opportunities along the scenic Farmington River. One American Legion Memorial Bridge, meanwhile, is an important Beltway commuter artery that crosses the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia; another American Legion Memorial Bridge crosses the Boardman River in Traverse City, Mich. USS American Legion was a Harris-class attack transport Navy ship that received two battle stars during World War II. USS Tampa Post 5 in Florida takes pride in honoring fallen veterans in American Legion Cemetery. And, of course, there’s the American Legion Burger Stand in Lake Mills, Wis.

How many parks, playgrounds, theaters, hospitals, streets, ferry boats, highways and byways are named after The American Legion?

That’s what the American Legion 100th Anniversary Observance Committee would like to discover. The committee is now compiling a directory of American Legion-named landmarks and points of interest for a guide to be printed, posted online and made into a smartphone app.

Legion writer and blogger Mark Seavey is collecting the Legion namesakes – not to include post homes. If you know of an American Legion-named landmark, building, forest, stream, mountain or any other point of interest, email mseavey@legion.org. Please keep the messages brief, stating what it is, its location, whether it still exists and a sentence or two about its origin – why it was so named. If sending a photo, please keep the resolution low or simply send a link to a photo, in order to prevent inbox overload.

Those who would like to submit American Legion landmarks through the mail can do so at:

American Legion Magazine

c/o Mark Seavey

PO Box 1055

Indianapolis, IN 46204

Legion, Los Angeles officials talk ending homelessness

On March 25, Department of California National Executive Committeeman Hugh Crooks and Department Parliamentarian Wayne Lee – along with American Legion Executive Director Verna Jones and Veterans Employment & Education Division Deputy Director Mark Walker – met with Jenny Chavez, chief of staff for Los Angeles Councilman Joe Buscaino's office, to discuss LA's plan/strategy to end veteran homelessness by 2015, which is part of the VA's goal.

The Legion reps learned about Los Angeles’ goal of creating more affordable housing and getting all stakeholders at the table to work on coordinated entry for homeless veterans to receive appropriate services and/or programs that will ultimately get them housed and reintegrated back into mainstream society. The Legion reps also discussed their programs and services that are available to assist homeless veterans and the organizations tireless advocacy and efforts on their behalf.

Celebrating 96 years of service, pride

Every year, the U.S. Navy has a birthday ball, and every year during his 20 years serving in the Navy, Leroy Davis looked forward to it. That experience made Davis want to make The American Legion’s birthday an event to look forward to.

The Alabama Legionnaire came up with the idea to have Fletcher-McCollister Post 135 in Phenix City put on a birthday ball last year. And that’s why Davis will continue to lead the celebration efforts, much like he did March 21 for the Legion’s 96th birthday.

“We were glad to have (the Navy ball) and glad to go to it,” said Davis, a 23-year member of the Legion and Post 135’s commander since 2013. “(It was) a sense of pride, and I felt that’s what we need to do: Make the people proud to be in The American Legion and proud to help other veterans.

“I felt that by starting a birthday ball – which is something I haven’t really seen a lot of throughout the country – that that will bring attention to The American Legion. The community needs to know that we are here and what we do. So that’s why I started the birthday ball.”

Nearly 100 people attended the ball, which took place at Marriott’s Courtyard Hotel in Phenix City and featured a buffet dinner, an American Legion birthday cake, music and dancing. During the ball, Post 135 also honored two longtime members: World War II veterans Carson D. Mitchell and Daniel M. Parish, who have been a part of the Legion for 70 years.

Central High School’s Navy Junior ROTC presented the colors to an audience that included various city and municipal government officials. Phenix City Mayor Eddie Lowe was one of those individuals; his attendance was evidence of the strong ties between Post 135 and its community.

“The common denominator, and the reason why (the relationship) is so strong, is because of the veterans,” Lowe said. “If it had not been for people giving up themselves, (paying) the ultimate price, we could not be able to have this event here. It’s important that we do remember that veterans are mission critical in this country. This is the best country in the world, and if it had not been for our veterans, we would not be able to be the best country in the world.”

Department of Georgia Legionnaire Dale Barnett, leading candidate for 2015-2016 national commander, was the guest speaker at the ball. Barnett spoke of how participating in Georgia Boys State influenced his decision to attend the U.S. Military Academy.

“I didn’t know then, but I know now, (applying at West Point was) because of The American Legion,” Barnett said. “It was because of the Boys State program: what people believe our organization stands for and has stood for for 96 years. You have changed lives.”

Prior to the ball, Barnett said Post 135’s birthday ball is a good model for other posts and states to follow. “I think as we move forward to our 100th anniversary, I hope we’re looking at (similar celebrations) all across the nation with departments (and posts) coming together,” he said. “There aren’t too many times you have an organization that survives 100 years. But to survive and be as vibrant as The American Legion is is truly outstanding and something worthy of celebrating.”

Barnett was joined at the ball by fellow Georgia Legionnaire – and department commander – Randy Goodman. For Goodman, coming to the ball was “a no-brainer,” he said. “We’re a family here in the Columbus (Ga.)-Phenix City area. We have one goal: to support the troops at Fort Benning and support the veterans in this metropolitan area.”

Goodman said the ball was an opportunity for the Legion to brag a bit. “We rarely tell our story,” he said. “This is a perfect way to do it. When we get together at events like this, the story unfolds. The public will never know unless we do those types of things.”

Alabama National Executive Committeeman Willis Frazier attended the ball and offered a similar perspective. “This is a time for the Legion to let the community and people who don’t know about us (know) what we’re all about,” he said. “This is tradition, and you don’t ever want to lose your tradition. We come together to reinforce what we do as Legionnaires to support our servicemembers, our veterans and our community.”

Davis admits putting the ball together takes a lot of work. But, he said, it’s worth it, “because of the publicity we get. Our elected officials, city and county, see that we are a valuable asset. They support us 100 percent."

Legion: Let court decide on Bergdahl

American Legion National Commander Michael D. Helm reiterated his concerns about the circumstances leading to the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl but is reserving judgment about his guilt or innocence until the legal process concludes. Bergdahl has been charged with desertion and with misbehavior before the enemy, a U.S. Army official said today.

“From the beginning, The American Legion has expressed its strong concerns about negotiating deals with terrorists,” Helm said. “While we do not believe in leaving any U.S. military personnel behind, we also don’t want to recklessly endanger Americans by creating incentives for future kidnappings and other terrorist acts.

“As a U.S. citizen and soldier, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is entitled to due process. A judge or a jury of his peers should decide his guilt or innocence. This is a process that the Taliban and other like-minded terrorist groups refuse to extend to anyone under their control. If Sgt. Bergdahl is found guilty, he must be punished accordingly.”

Legion: Use 'common sense’ in Choice Card program

The American Legion wants the Department of Veterans Affairs to stop sending its patients to medical facilities that can’t help them.

Under VA’s Choice Card program, veterans living more than 40 miles from a VA facility can use the cards to get treatment from private-sector health care. But if a VA medical facility is less than 40 miles away, regardless of whether it can provide the proper treatment, veterans don’t qualify for the program.

“This arrangement is another unfortunate example of how the VA trips itself up over details,” American Legion National Commander Michael D. Helm said. “In its zeal to follow the 40-mile rule, VA is making it more difficult – not less – for some veterans to get the care they need.”

Helm said VA demonstrated common sense by changing the measurement of its 40-mile rule from “as the crow flies” to actual driving distance.

VA needs to demonstrate more common sense, Helm said, by making sure its Choice Card program sends veterans to facilities where they can be treated effectively. “Why is VA so hard and fast on this 40-mile rule? It is not in the spirit of the VA reform law, which was passed to make health care more accessible to our veterans, not less.”

In a fact sheet issued March 24, VA stated that “absent a statutory change,” to the Choice Card program, it had to continue sending some veterans to facilities that cannot provide the care they need. “VA does not believe that it has the flexibility to adopt an alternative approach.”

Helm said the explanation was specious and without merit. “VA doesn’t need the blessing of Congress to give our veterans the medical care they need. If he wanted to, Secretary McDonald could fix the problem today. That’s when The American Legion would like to see him fix it – today.”

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