National Commander Denise Rohan testifying before Congress.

By: John Raughter

In a powerful opening statement, American Legion National Commander Denise H. Rohan told a joint session of the House and Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs the why behind The American Legion’s century of service.

“The American Legion was built to strengthen America,” said Rohan, during her testimony Wednesday in Washington, D.C. “That is the why of The American Legion. I believe that is also the why of Congress – and the common denominator that we share.”

Introducing Rohan to the committee was fellow Wisconsinite and Speaker of the U.S. House Paul Ryan.

“We in southern Wisconsin are just so proud to have one of our own as the first woman in history to lead the Legion. Commander Rohan represents the best that we have to offer in Wisconsin,” Ryan said. “She’s selfless, she’s inclusive, she’s beyond tireless, and she’s a rabid Green Bay Packer fan as every Wisconsinite is. This month alone she traveled everywhere from Minnesota to Missouri to Mississippi to talk at Legion posts. She made ‘Family First’ her motto. (She’s) expanding the Legion’s focus on helping military families, and she’s encouraging more young people to get involved which is absolutely critical. Just last week she said, ‘When I look at everything we do, it’s all about taking care of one another.’ That just speaks as to who she is.”

Ryan also emphasized the role The American Legion plays on local communities, as well as the national dialog. “People know the Legion as a fixture in their communities. It is truly a national force for good,” Ryan said. “And the GI Bill is a perfect example. What became one of the most consequential laws of the 20th century started with a Legion commander putting some of his ideas down on a notepad. Fittingly, when it came time to pass the Forever GI Bill last year, the Legion was indispensable to getting this done along with the other veterans service organizations.”

Legionnaire and House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., touted recent legislative accomplishments of Congress, which were supported by The American Legion.

“2017 was a tremendous and monumental legislative year for American veterans, both present and future,” he said. “From appeals modernization to the Harry W. Colmery Forever GI Bill, The American Legion has been at the forefront of our fight for our veterans, their dependents and caregivers.”

Rohan fulfilled a promise that she made to American Legion Family members in Puerto Rico by delivering to Congress a message about the needs of those still recovering from last year’s massive hurricanes. “I saw firsthand what that looks like last month when I toured Puerto Rico and the hurricane-torn islands of the Caribbean where U.S. veterans and American Legion members were standing strong with amazing resolve, putting the needs of others above their own – as their VA facilities and communities remained far from restored,” she said.

Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, R.-P.R., thanked her colleagues for passing supplemental funding to help the region recover. “You saw what’s happening in Arecibo, with our clinics still working in a parking lot,” she said to Rohan. “In tents. In mobile units. Vieques (clinic) is still closed. It was a savage hurricane. We understand that.”

Another key message point delivered by Rohan is The American Legion’s strong opposition to any attempt to privatize VA health care. It is a stance shared by Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., who said, “Right now the war we are waging is whether or not we are going to strengthen VA.” He warned that there are many organizations and individuals in Congress that are attempting to privatize a host of government programs to include Social Security, Medicare and veterans health care.

“All of us veterans, we did not fight for Blue Cross and Blue Shield. We fought for the USA – the red, white and blue,” Rohan said. “The American Legion is 100 percent for funding the VA system, making sure that our veterans are taken care of, where they need it (and) when they need it. Sometimes that means choice. They need to go to a non-VA provider, but that system we have – that is where veterans need to get their care.”

Several lawmakers commended Rohan’s “Family First” theme and The American Legion’s commitment to expanding benefits for caregivers of veterans from all generations. “We have so many moms and dads who are taking care of their heroes, who came home injured. We have husbands and wives, who devoted their lives. And our veterans did not just serve after 9/11,” Rohan said.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., underscored his support for a strong VA health system. “I stand with you in fighting those forces that want to privatize VA,” he said. Takano also called for more federal funding for medical schools to fill shortages of physicians. These shortages have hit VA particularly hard.

“What we do in this country and how we spend the money is a moral statement. It is morally correct to take care of our veterans,” Takano said.

Roe complimented the Legion on its commitment to transition assistance, particularly in the area of employment certifications.

“In Tennessee if you can drive a semi across my state with an M1-A1 Abrams tank on the back, you can drive a Fed-Ex truck,” Roe said, while mentioning his intention to add a military liaison to improve the process.

In closing, Rohan signaled out Roe’s expertise to lead the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Mr. Chairman,” she said, “I think we’re very lucky that we have a doctor as chairman.”