MARSHALL — Amidst The American Legion’s 100th anniversary, a bill expanding its membership eligibility is pending, but looks to have a good chance of passing after being introduced in the Senate in February and the House of Representatives in March.
Currently, only veterans who served during periods of declared hostilities are eligible to join The American Legion, excluding thousands of veterans who served in undeclared conflicts.
“I think anybody who has served in the military should be able to belong to the Legion,” Marshall Post 113 Commander Ken Versaevel said. “I understand that for the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) — if you weren’t serving overseas during wartime, then you’re not eligible to become a member. I’m not a VFW member. I was never deployed. But we had our bags packed all the time. We always had to be ready to go, but we never got called.”
If passed, the Let Everyone Get Involved in Opportunities for National Service Act — also known as the LEGION Act — would expand membership to include honorably discharged veterans who served from Dec. 7, 1941 to the present.
“The LEGION Act is a good thing as it opens up membership to all since Dec. 7, 1941,” said Brad Pagel, commander of Post 64 in Slayton. “My opinion is that if you have served, you should be eligible to join The American Legion. That’s why The American Legion passed the resolution to open up membership.”
Since its founding in 1919, membership in The American Legion has been open to veterans of World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Lebanon/Grenada, Panama and Gulf War/War on Terrorism. But there are at least 12 known combat operations — including the Cold War, Libyan Conflict and Persian Gulf Conflicts — that also required an activated military presence.
“Nearly 1,600 brave American men and women were killed or wounded since World War II, while defending our nation during times not officially recognized as periods of war by the U.S. government,” American Legion National Commander Brett Reistad said. “These veterans are unable to receive some of the benefits and recognition available to their counterparts who served during official wartime periods.”
Reistad said The American Legion is unable to welcome many veterans as members of the nation’s largest veterans organization because it is congressionally chartered.
“It is fitting that during the 100th anniversary of the founding of The American Legion, Senators Kyrsten Sinema, (D-Ariz.), and Thom Tillis, (R-N.C.), are introducing the LEGION Act, bipartisan legislation that will recognize all veterans who served honorably since the start of World War II, while also fostering growth within the veteran community.”
Sinema, a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, introduced the LEGION Act on Feb. 14, marking the first time she sponsored a Senate bill. Minnesota Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith are among 22 co-sponsors of the bipartisan effort. On the House side, Lou Correa, D-Calif., and Ben Cline, R-VA, introduced the LEGION Act on March 8.
“The American Legion provides critical resources to our veterans, but currently, only veterans who served during formally recognized conflicts can belong to the Legion,” Sinema said. “That restriction leaves out thousands of former American servicemembers who signed up to defend our country. Our legislation rights this wrong and ensures veterans have the opportunity to join The American Legion.”
Versaevel has been a Legion member for about 30 years. Despite being a member of the National Guard for seven years, he was not allowed to be a Legion member at first — not until they declared action in Vietnam a war, he said.
“My dad (Bill Versaevel) served in Europe in World War II and he was mad about that,” Versaevel said. “He was really upset that a lot of guys (fighting) over in Vietnam couldn’t be Legion members because it was not declared a war at the time. There are still people I work with who served during those (ineligible) times and they can’t belong. And Congress is the one that has to change it.”
Pagel explained that The American Legion had been chartered by Congress as a wartime veterans organization 100 years ago.
“That’s why any changes they want to do to the charter have to be approved by Congress,” Pagel said. “Some people didn’t understand that part of the Legion’s history. So many people fall in those gaps on the membership, so The LEGION Act would eliminate those gaps.”
At a town hall meeting recently in Marshall, Pagel said Congressman Collin Peterson shared his optimism about the bill.
“(Peterson) said it has good support,” Pagel said. “He said both bills have been introduced and he thinks this will be one of the bills that gets through Congress the fastest.”