American Legion national commander reaches out to Vt. vets
VERGENNES — Recently elected American Legion National Commander Charles Schmidt of Oregon has several missions as he travels around the nation during his year in office.
Schmidt, a retired and decorated 27-and-a-half year Air Force veteran and 33-year American Legion member, stopped at Vergennes Post 14 on a Monday afternoon last month as part of his four-day visit to Vermont.
Schmidt, granting an interview after a Post 14 hot lunch and soda with a hunting story on the side, described one of his basic missions.
“I just come out to meet the veterans and tell the veterans that, first of all that they are appreciated and thank them, not only for their military service, but also their service as a Legionnaire taking care of veterans,” he said. “We have a couple mottos: ‘Veterans Serving Veterans’ and ‘Veterans Serving America.’”
As far as exactly where that mission takes Schmidt within the states and the four other American Legion “departments” (Puerto Rico, France, the Philippines and Washington, D.C.), he is a good soldier — Schmidt follows orders from local officials, who decide where National Commanders should visit within their borders.
In Vermont last month, that meant posts in Vergennes, Castleton, Fair Haven and Poultney as well as veterans’ programs in Northfield and Rutland.
“They plan their own internal agenda, and I just fly with that,” Schmidt said, adding, “Part of the job as the American Legion National Commander is to do a lot of traveling.”
Wherever Schmidt stops, he plans to emphasize the founding principles of the American Legion, about which he offered a brief history lesson starting in 1919 in France, after the end of World War I.
“Teddy Roosevelt Jr. and a handful of members of the American Expeditionary Force were concerned about their buddies going back home,” he said. “There was no VA. There was nothing.”
Schmidt said the organization they founded adopted these core principles: “Rehabilitation of all disabled veterans; care of the dependents of those who have answered the call; care of those veterans who are now suffering from wounds, disease or want; the education of our youth; and service to our community, state and nation.”
“That is as relevant today as that day in March of 1919 when they chose to sit down and discuss those concerns,” Schmidt said, adding his theme for his year in office is “Carry the legacy forward.”
“Every one of us has a niche, or a forte, that they can come to a post and they can contribute. They’ve got something to contribute. Even if it’s dishwashing or working on a program or something, to make something good happen. I tell people that membership card is ownership. I remember watching the TV a long time ago where Prudential Insurance always had, ‘Own a piece of the rock,’ he said.
“But we in this organization own something more precious than a piece of rock. We own history and tradition. We own service and sacrifice, not only when we were in uniform, but right now.”
Community service, as has been exemplified by the county’s local Legion Posts, is an important part of the equation, Schmidt said. He harkened back to his own days in the Air Force.
“We’re not just takers. We give back to communities. I was in Vietnam, and we got those Care packages from home from the communities and so forth, and that means a lot, and particularly to the men and women now in Iraq and Afghanistan, the outpouring of the community,” he said. “So why not give back, show your appreciation of something.”
Schmidt, already leads the largest veterans’ organization in the nation, with 2.2 million members. But the passing of most World War II and many Korean War veterans has left Legion membership down from its peak of 3 million. Thus Schmidt has taken on another major mission: explaining the benefits of the Legion to younger veterans.
“We want to grow. We’ve still got the Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans,” he said.
Regardless of their participation, the Legion is serving them, Schmidt said, through support of the Veterans Administration and its constant lobbying in Washington, D.C., on behalf of better VA funding and staffing and for funding to support veterans’ medical, education and employment issues.
“They come back, and maybe they’re not ready to come into the American Legion, even though we go to Capitol Hill every day, not only for us Legionnaires, but for those who have served, and those who are serving, and those who will serve,” Schmidt said. “We still look out after them. Veterans serving veterans.”
But with their membership, the Legion could offer more to younger veterans, he said.
“I think we reach out to them by telling them what programs we have and how we can help them. Someday, the current generation, I think the time will come when they will need the American Legion,” Schmidt said, adding, “We have service officers that when they come back and they have a need, whether it’s service related or service connected, whether it’s education or employment benefits, the service officer can help them. A service officer can be those young people’s best friend, and they don’t know that necessarily.”
Schmidt noted the structure of the military has changed, with more citizen soldiers with young families at home. Thus, he said, the Legion should emphasize to potential recruits its programs for families and youths and its community service, such as support for Boys’ State, oratorical competitions, Boy Scouts of America and youth baseball.
Posts sponsor many other charitable ventures, and Schmidt told the story of meeting three Boy Scouts and a 70-year-old Legion member sponsored by an Oregon post who in 2015 bicycled across the U.S. to Ground Zero to raise funds ($26,000) and awareness for a Legion program that provides comfort items to 9-11 responders who are still suffering from injuries.
“Those programs help children develop into good role models,” he said.
The offer of a place to make friends with common interests can also become a big part of the organization’s appeal as younger veterans reintegrate into civilian life, Schmidt said.
“You don’t think about it. I’m home. I’m safe. I’m free. But eventually that camaraderie comes back around,” he said.
Schmidt understands the reluctance to sign up: His older brother, a Missouri Post Commander, had to twist his arm to join.
“I was the same way,” Schmidt said. “He kept telling me you really ought to think about joining the American Legion. They do all these good things. They’ve got all these good programs, and they help support the VA … and somewhere along in your lifetime as a veteran you’re going to have a need for the American Legion.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
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