Green Valley News
Local and national American Legion Post leaders say the Legion Act signed in July is adding members, but they all agree the most significant change is that it honors those previously excluded from joining.
The Legion Act opens membership to all veterans with an honorable discharge who served at any point since Dec. 7, 1941 — Pearl Harbor Day. Before the law's passage, the organization wasn't open to veterans who served during eras not recognized as conflict periods.
The American Legion has more than 13,000 posts and about 2 million members worldwide, down from about 6 million five years ago. Congress chartered the organization in 1919.
Legion national spokesman John Raughter said there are 20,602 more members now than at this time last year. He attributed the increase to the Legion Act sponsored by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and signed by President Trump in July.
Raughter said that membership wasn't the primary reason the organization pushed for the law. It was about acknowledging the country has been in a state of war, declared or not, since World War II.
Sinema said expanding membership improves services for veterans across Arizona and honors those killed or injured during the eras excluded by the previous law.
"Ensuring our veterans get the benefits they've earned isn't a partisan issue," she said in a statement to the Green Valley News.
GV, Sahuarita posts
Raughter said the response "has been very positive."
That was the sentiment at American Legion Post 66 on Duval Mine Road on Thursday as Kenny Prather, Larry Aho and Ed Ahslock enjoyed cold beers in the lounge.
Prather served 24 years in the Army and always supported the Legion Act, he said.
"I support the idea that all veterans should join," Prather said. "We all take the oath, why can't we all join the Legion?"
Aho said he's noticed new members coming through who have been able to join the Legion because of the new law.
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Post 66 commander Gary Hoffman said the law should expand the organization's national membership by 1 to 2 percent. However, Post 66's boost has been more significant.
"We have 1,207 members, and of that, 74 are new," he said.
Accounting for members who have transferred to the post, Hoffman said the change in the law has resulted in 70 new members to the 1,207-person roster.
"Our increase is a lot more than the 1 percent other people are saying," he said. "But again, we're one of the largest posts and we get a lot of snowbirds. That increases us, and then they have a choice of joining us or (American Legion Madera Post) 131."
At the Post 131 on Esperanza Boulevard, Commander Dan Cady said they have also seen an increase. Some of the new members were already with the Sons of the Legion, but couldn't join the American Legion as regular members.
"That's been the biggest group," he said. "Their service was in between (the era gaps), but their fathers' were not. And their fathers' service allowed them to be affiliated, but now their full-voting Legionnaires."
At Post 131, Cady said he challenges fellow members to go out and find veterans who were previously ineligible to join.
"Bring them in and let's bring them back into our family," he said. "And we've gotten a few. I'd say a dozen or so, but there's a lot of Legion Posts and a lot of people vying for that membership."
With many residents being seasonal visitors, Cady said it's not unusual for veterans to be members at smaller hometown posts that need the dues more.
Unlike other veterans organizations, Congress had control over the American Legion's membership eligibility. However, the organization doesn't receive federal funding and relies on membership dues.
"It did hamstring us because we couldn't bring people in and add to our population," Hoffman said. "We are the only organization of this type that is controlled and run by Congress. That is the reason for years the Legion Act was being pushed."
Hoffman said it was about opening up to all vets and not having to say no when they came in to join.
"As long as you are a military person with a DD-214 (discharge document) and honorably discharged, you now qualify," he said. "Prior to that, six million people didn't qualify because they didn't hit the right date."
And the Legion Act could give veterans a greater voice when it comes to dealing with Congress.
"It's another opportunity for us to bring in veterans that have been deprived for years," Cady said. "It just adds voices to the veteran lobby when we have an issue in Washington."