MONTPELIER — The Vermont American Legion welcomed the newly elected 2019-2020 national commander this week during the 100th anniversary of the world's largest veterans' organization.
James W. “Bill” Oxford was elected to the position on Aug. 29 at the Legion’s 101st convention in Indianapolis, Indiana, and replaces outgoing Cmdr. Brett Reistad. Oxford has been a member of the Legion since 1986.
Oxford was in Vermont on Monday as part of a national tour to celebrate the Legion’s first 100 years, ending Nov. 11 on Veterans Day, and to look to its future in a bid to build membership.
Oxford visited American Legion Post 100 on State Street, toured the State House, met with Gov. Phil Scott, had lunch at the Legion Post 3 on Main Street in Montpelier and visited The Veterans' Place in Northfield.
On Tuesday, Oxford will visit Norwich University during its bicentennial celebrations, have lunch at the Sorrell Maynard Legion Post 63 in Northfield, visit the Vermont Veterans Cemetery in Randolph Center and attend an evening banquet at Barre Legion Post 10.
On Wednesday, Oxford will visit Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks in Montpelier before being driven to Bethel, Maine, for the next leg of his national tour.
The American Legion was founded on March 15, 1919, at the American Club in Paris, France, by members of the American Expeditionary Forces to help care for soldiers returning from World War I. The Legion was chartered by the U.S. Congress on Sept. 16, 1919.
Membership of the Legion is down from a peak of 3.3 million members after the end of World War II to 2.3 million in 2013. There are about 10,000 members in Vermont.
Oxford said the 100th anniversary was an important milestone to measure past successes and look to the future.
“We’ve got to realize that we as Legionnaires are the future of this organization. The things we did yesterday, the things we do today and the things we will do tomorrow are creating the foundation for the future of this organization,” he said.
Oxford said increasing membership was key to the future of the Legion, highlighting goals to retain membership and add 100,000 members during his year in office. The long-term goal is reaching 3.3 million members — the Legion’s all-time high membership in 1946.
Oxford said membership would be boosted by recent passage of the LEGION Act that opened the door for approximately 6 million veterans of previously undeclared war eras to access American Legion programs and benefits for which they were not previously eligible.
In addition to focusing on the core four pillars of Legion activity — Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation; National Security; Americanism; and Children and Youth — Oxford is promoting the American Legion Centennial Coin to raise funds for programs that support veterans, service members, their families and communities.
In January, Oxford said he would switch emphasis to the American Legion Veterans and Children Foundation. All funds raised by the foundation go to the Legion’s Temporary Financial Assistance and Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation programs.
“The Temporary Financial Assistance program is a charity that the American Legion uses to provide funds to children in need — to help with food, shelter, medical,” Oxford said. “Last year, the American Legion gave away $1 million to U.S. Coast Guard families with young children during the government shutdown. That $1 million wasn’t a loan, it was a direct grant to them.”
The Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation program trains service officers to help veterans and families understand their health care benefits and education and employment opportunities, he added.
Oxford said he appreciated meeting Scott, who he said supports veterans' programs.
“His dad was a veteran from World War II," Oxford said. “The way he feels about his dad is the way he feels about the rest of the veterans. He realizes the value, the importance, the contributions that veterans make to this country, then as well as now.”
During the visit to Legion Post 3, Oxford was welcomed by Dick Harlow, former Post 3 commander in the absence of Bill McManis, the current commander; Ron LaRose, the new state commander, of Bristol Legion Post 19; and Corrinna Colson, national centennial president and president of the Legion’s Women’s Auxiliary in Vermont.
A native of Lenoir, South Carolina, Oxford was a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, an aviation electronic technician for the A-6 Intruder and served in Vietnam during his initial enlistment. After being discharged as a sergeant in 1970, he joined the North Carolina National Guard, attended officer’s candidate school and transferred to the U.S. Army Reserve, where he retired as a colonel after more than 34 years of military service.
Oxford has served as Legion state commander in North Carolina and been a part of several national American Legion commissions. He also is a former mayor and city council member of Cajah’s Mountain, North Carolina.