MONTPELIER — The national commander of the American Legion visited the Capital City last Wednesday to mark the 100th anniversary of the world’s largest veterans’ association.
Brett P. Reistad, of Virginia, was elected the top official of the Legion in August and has already visited 35 states and several U.S. protectorates worldwide.
His visit to Montpelier included a stop at the Vermont American Legion Headquarters Post 100 on State Street, a visit and photo-op with Gov. Phil Scott at the State House and lunch at the American Legion Post 3 on Main Street.
The American Legion is a U.S. war veterans’ organization founded on March 15, 1919, at the American Club near Place de Concorde in Paris, France, by members of the American Expeditionary Forces to help care for soldiers returning from World War I. The Legion was chartered on Sept. 16, 1919, by the U.S. Congress.
As the years have marched on, so have many of the Legion’s members, down from a peak of 3.3 million members after the end of World war II to 2.3 million in 2013. Post 3’s membership has dropped from a peak of 500 members to about 240 members today. Statewide, there are about 10,000 members.
Reistad said he was happy to return to Vermont — and meet with the governor — after a visit last year during the nomination process to be the Legion national commander.
Reistad said he received assurances from Scott about support for veterans in the state, including a Senate bill. S.111 seeks to establish a registry of veterans who suffered the toxic effects of so-called burn pits when disposing of a variety of hazardous wastes that have caused medical problems. Reistad said it was a similar action like the Legion’s efforts to advocate at the national level for the victims of the defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
“He had a couple of questions about the burn pits and talked about the legislation that they just put through your general assembly and asked if it was something that we’re focused on the national level, and we certainly are,” Reistad said.
Reistad was met at Burlington International Airport by Vermont Legion State Commander David Woodward and Melvin Knight of the Legion Post 10 in Barre, who acts as the Legion’s public information officer in Vermont. Post 3 Commander Dick Harlow was unable to join the day’s activities due to illness.
“(Reistad’s) obviously a very dedicated Legionnaire, and this is a very important PR opportunity for us, to let people know what the American Legion does for our veterans and our communities,” Woodward said. “We discussed veterans’ affairs and how we feel about national bills being proposed.”
“These visits are important for both sides,” Knight added. “It’s important for the national commander to get a feel for the situation with the Legion out in the field — what’s they’re concerned about, whether it’s relationships with the VA or helping youth — and it’s an uplifting experience for a national commander to come to a post, so it’s a two-way thing.”
One Legion member attending the lunch at Post 3 in Montpelier was Adjunct Dell Hill from Post 33 in Morrisville.
“It’s an honor for each state that gets an official visit from the national commander,” Hill said. “That’s a lot of travel for one person in a year.
“He’s on the road quite a bit, but they do get to come out and rub shoulders with the rank-and-file,” he added. “You get to shake their hand and talk to them personally. It’s like a real shot of adrenaline to have the national commander come in and pump you up.”
In addition to focusing on the core four pillars of Legion activity — Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation; National Security; Americanism; and Children and Youth — Reistad said he is also focusing on new initiatives.
As part of the 100th anniversary, Reistad launched the Team 100 campaign, which gathers the thoughts of Legion members to use in promotional materials to increase membership. The campaign also provides incentives for Legion posts and departments worldwide to receive financial rewards for returning members to their rosters, ramping up renewal rates and hitting their targets for 2019.
Because of his law enforcement background, Reistad also panned to meet with Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette, who was named Law Enforcement Officer of the Year by the Legion in 2012 for his ties to the community, establishing foot patrols in high-risk residential areas, obtaining grants to fund the purchase of high-tech law enforcement tools and supporting Boy Scouts of America.
As 2019 national commander, Reistad’s theme is “Celebrating Our Legacy,” with special emphasis on the Legion’s centennial.
Reistad’s visit to Vermont last Wednesday included a visit to Hardwick Post 7 for a social evening, dinner and an overnight stay.
On Thursday, he traveled to Bennington to meet Doucette, do a radio interview and visit Chester Post 67 and Brattleboro Post 5 before heading to Massachusetts.