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Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

What the hell is wrong at the American Legion? Some thoughts from a member

Denise Rohan’s statement does not carry the Legion’s legacy forward.

By , a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy.
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By Kyleanne Hunter
Best Defense guest columnist

As a U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran of the Post-9/11 wars, I was proud to join the American Legion. In the years since I left the Marines, I had witnessed Legion Posts come under the leadership of young veterans committed to engagement with communities.  As a woman, I welcomed and cheered the election of the Legion’s first female national commander last month.

But today, I could not be more embarrassed and ashamed of Denise Rohan’s statement titled, “American Legion Blasts NFL For Disrespect,” that she assumed to make on behalf of all Legionnaires in response to the National Football League protests. (This statement has since been retitled to read, “The American Legion Calls For Unity.”)

I can attest that Rohan does not speak for all Legionnaires — especially those of my generation. Yes, as a country we need unity, and many of us have highlighted the role that veterans can play creating dialogue in a divided nation. However, Rohan’s statement in no way promotes unity.

This is no way for her to start her year as national commander. Instead of leading the veterans’ community to help unify our nation, she has further inflamed ill will and joined forces with those who seek to divide through culture war.

She does not speak for me on this issue. She does not speak for many of my friends who are combat veterans. And the photo of the African-American Army veteran wearing his Legion cap and holding a folded American flag while kneeling to protest President Donald Trump’s motorcade during his visit to Indianapolis (where the Legion is headquartered) indicates that she has discounted the concerns of many of our members who are people of color. Many of us in the Legion believed from the start that the NFL protests were never about disrespecting the flag, or veterans. The act of kneeling, an intentionally pious act, should not be construed as disrespect.  Furthermore, these protests have been, and continue to be, peaceful. They have started an important conversation around race and the application of rights — one that is tough for some people to hear.

Her statement does not carry the Legion’s legacy forward. Rather, it reinforces the stereotypical image of the Legion as an old, dying drinking club for angry old men who don’t care about engaging with their communities or listening.  I’m all for the Legion being political, but on issues that help veterans, not on issues that only divide the community.  If anything, the Legion should have come out on the side of freedom of speech, since that is first among the values that we all swore an oath to protect.  As a Marine, I was taught to respect the rights of others, even when I might disagree. As a veteran, I still hold to that.

Rohan, if you want to recruit and retain young veterans like me, you need to wake up to the realities of what unification can look like, and understand that protest, especially around civil rights, is part of the veteran experience.  If not, the American Legion is going to perish.  Women and minorities are the fastest growing demographic of veterans and the Legion has made so much progress under your predecessors to become a model for inclusivity and community-veteran engagement.

I now wonder whether we have a home at the American Legion. If you don’t offer a retraction, I’m going to have a long hard thought about renewing my membership.

Kyleanne Hunter is a decorated combat veteran of the Marine Corps.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1

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