Legion leader visits local posts

BRISTOL — Four area American Legion posts rolled out the red carpet on Friday for a rare visit from their highest-ranking colleague, National Commander Clarence E. Hill, who was touring the western part of the state to listen to veterans and describe efforts being made on their behalf in the nation’s capital.
Established in 1919, the American Legion is the nation’s largest veterans’ service organization. The organization not only looks out for the interests of current and past service men and women, but also supports a variety of community programs, including Legion baseball, student scholarships, Boys and Girls State, and many philanthropic causes.
There are approximately 2.4 million American Legion members belonging to a combined total of approximately 14,000 posts nationwide, including Post 19 in Bristol, Post 14 in Vergennes, Post 27 in Middlebury and Post 55 in Brandon. Hill, as part of his commander duties, visited all four posts during a 48-hour trip to the Green Mountain State late last week.
“The national commander tours as many departments as he can every year; this is my 33rd out of 55,” Hill said prior to sitting down to breakfast at Bristol Post 19.
Hill, a U.S. Navy veteran from Martins Ferry, Ohio, was elected national commander of the Legion on Aug. 27. He is the most influential representative of veterans’ issues on the national stage.
“I’m here to listen to whatever they want to say,” he added, looking over toward the local veterans who had assembled for the occasion.
Hill was there not only to listen, but to describe current Legion priorities on the national stage. Those efforts include encouraging veterans to tap into the ever-evolving computer social networks, like Facebook and Twitter; advocating for better support services for ailing veterans; and boosting membership for the organization.
Hill is big fan of using modern technology in spreading the Legion’s message and membership. He writes a report after every visit, regularly Twitters, has more than 2,400 friends on Facebook and posts information regularly — including a monthly video — on the Legion’s Web site (www.legion.org).
“It’s never been done before, I’m the first one to do any of this stuff,” he said of the new technology outreach efforts. “It is my effort to reach out to the younger veterans and get word of the American Legion out to a wider audience.”
That wider audience is able to better tap into major issues with the Legion is involved — including making sure a backlog of as many as 1 million veterans’ benefits claims is processed by the Veterans Administration (VA).
“They did institute procedures where they processed more claims than ever last year — something short of a million — but they got 1.3 million (in new requests),” Hill said of the VA. “So the backlog increased. They’ve gotten more claims than ever, and that’s not likely to change.”
Requests have not only gone up due to the needs of new veterans from current conflicts.  Hill noted a spike in claims because of three new diseases recently linked to Agent Orange, a defoliant used during the Vietnam War.
“They are expecting over 200,000 folks to be affected,” Hill said of the new disease designations.
The national Legion is also seeking changes in federal rules that currently forces veterans (65 and over) to choose between Medicare and VA health care benefits.
“When you reach Medicare age, you have to make a choice,” Hill said. “If you are in the VA system, you either stay in that system and never use your Medicare, or you change to Medicare and don’t use the VA, because the VA can’t bill Medicare. You have to make a choice. We don’t feel you should have to make that choice. We believe we should be able to tap into Medicare and VA should be able to bill them.”
Another of the Legion’s priorities, according to Hill, is to make the G.I. Bill more flexible. Hill said that G.I. Bill benefits are currently limited to situations in which the recipient is studying on a college/university campus. The Legion would like to see those benefits extended to such study scenarios as vocational education and distance learning, according to Hill.
Hill is pleased to report that the Legion is doing very well in its membership drives. Each state sets a goal, and he noted Vermont is at around 93 percent if its goal of 15,000 — giving it the second-highest success rate in the nation, according to Hill.
“We are probably going to have growth this year,” Hill said.
Ron LaRose, commander of Bristol Post 19, was pleased that Hill was able to meet with local veterans.
“I can’t remember the last time someone of this rank in the Legion (visited),” LaRose said. “It’s great; it gives us a little shot in the arm.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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