COMMANDER SHARES CONCERNS AND COMMON GROUND WITH PRESIDENT OBAMA The needs of veterans seeking timely decisions about VA benefits claim stopped the agenda of American Legion National Commander James E. Koutz in a meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House. The commander also expressed his appreciation of the administration's support for Legion backed efforts to improve the transfer of military experience into credits for licensing and credentials in various trades and specialized career fields. "As the troops are coming home from war and separating from military service, it is imperative that we, as a nation, ease their transition to civilian life," Koutz said after the meeting. "President Obama and The American Legion are on the same page when it comes to two vital aspects of that transition: timely decisions on VA benefits claims and fair consideration of military experience when veterans pursue careers in the private and public sectors that require training certification. We've made great progress over the last 12 months on the licensing and certification front, but we still have a long way to go. As for the VA claims backlog, The American Legion and the White House are both disappointed that the number of undecided claims continues to grow and little progress has been made to shorten wait times. To that end, President Obama and I agree that now is not the time for finger-pointing, and the Legion will work urgently with VA to achieve workable solutions." AMERICAN LEGION AUXILIARY LEADERS MEET WITH U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS OFFICIALS American Legion Auxiliary National Vice President Nancy Brown-Park, National Secretary/Executive Director Mary "Dubbie" Buckler, National VA&R Chairman Janet Jefford, and Children & Youth Chairman Sharon Conatser met with U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki during the DC Briefings which followed the ALA's Washington DC Conference. Secretary Shinseki briefed ALA national leaders on the status of homeless veterans, the special needs of veterans as college students, and ways the ALA can help make others more sensitive and responsive to the unique needs of America's veterans across college campuses. Shinseki commented on the importance of American Legion Service Officers in expediting claims and helping veterans to navigate the complex claims processing system. He complimented the ALA on a recent article in Auxiliary magazine, which outlined the requirements and contributions of VA Voluntary Service volunteers. He also praised the efforts of the American Legion Auxiliary in providing much needed care to our veterans across the country. The American Legion Auxiliary's volunteer service at VA facilities across the country has a multi-million dollar impact annually on improving veterans' care. VA Voluntary Services Director Laura Balun, who also attended the DC Briefings, said the American Legion Auxiliary leads the Legion Family in volunteer service hours. "What I love about the American Legion Auxiliary is that you're always asking the right questions," Balun said. "You want to fix the right things. AUXILIARY'S D.C. DIRECTOR RECEIVES NATIONAL POINT OF LIGHT AWARD American Legion Auxiliary Director of Government Relations Robert "Bob" Reeg received the prestigious Daily Point of Light Award in March for his "selfless devotion to the veterans' community." The award, which was personally signed by former President George H. W. Bush, honors individuals and groups that create meaningful change in communities across America. In a letter announcing the award, Mike Monroe, vice president of Military Initiatives for Points of Light, said Reeg's efforts prove that people value the importance of service to drive change. "Bob, you are truly a Point of Light for the veterans' movement, and we are so happy to have you as part of the team," Monroe said. "Thank you for your contribution to your community and our nation." Reeg is shown above with National Secretary/ Executive Director Mary "Dubbie" Buckler, presenting the actual award received from former President Bush. ALA NATIONAL PRESIDENT SPEAKS AT COMMANDER'S CALL American Legion Auxiliary National President Peggy Thomas addressed the assembly at the 2013 Commander's Call of The American Legion Washington Conference. "Like the Legion and the SAL, the Auxiliary is also re-doubling its efforts to grow membership, and in so doing, strengthening our advocacy for the service to veterans, military servicemembers, and their families," said Thomas. "The American Legion Auxiliary will work hand in hand with our Legion and SAL brothers and sisters to advocate for public policies and funding that improves the wellbeing and quality of life for military servicemembers, veterans and their families and work hard to keep our nation strong." Thomas joined a commanding slate of speakers at the Commander's Call, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs; Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chair of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs (HCVA); Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), HCVA member and retired Army veteran; Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki; Assistant Secretary of Labor Keith Kelly; Todd Veazie, White House executive director of Joining Forces. To view Thomas's speech in its entirety, visit the Auxiliary's Washington DC Conference page at www.ALAforVeterans.org. VETERANS BENEFITS CLAIMS FAIR On Feb. 21, The American Legion held its first Veterans Benefits Claims Fair at the Washington Hilton in Washington, D.C. Area veterans were encouraged to attend and receive assistance from Legion service officers in filing VA disability and other claims. Several of the Legion's Department Service Officers (DSOs) and service officers from other Veterans Service Organizations were on hand to provide assistance. "This is another major effort on our part to improve our outreach efforts to veterans," said Verna Jones, director of the Legion's VA&R Division. "Many of our veterans aren't getting the benefits they have earned, simply because they need help in navigating the VA system." The Legion and VA are emphasizing the development and submission of more fully developed claims by veterans, since they usually move through the claims processing system much faster. "The challenge is that we have so many more veterans coming into the VA system because we've been at war for almost 12 years," Jones said. ALA National Security Committee Chairman Mary E. Davis is an American Legion Service Officer and the Service Officer Trainer for the Department of Washington. Davis honed her training skills while attending a workshop prior to the ALA Washington DC Conference. ''The VA is trying to update how they do claims and do them more expeditiously," said Davis. "It's always exciting to know you're not only making a difference, but that things are getting better over time for our veterans and that their wait will soon be less." Davis said one of her colleagues from the Seattle office was able to put her new training to use assisting a female veteran initiate a claim for benefits. MEMBERSHIP IS A FAMILY ISSUE Denise Rohan, chairman of the American Legion Membership and Post Activities Committee, addressed the need to reverse the Legion Family's downward membership trend at the 2013 Commander's Call of the American Legion Washington Conference. Rohan recalled the years that followed Roosevelt's signing of the GI Bill of Rights in 1943 when the Legion was 3.3 million members strong. "What a wonderful time that must have been," said Rohan. "It was a time when our representatives sought us out to get our opinions on how to govern this nation. The nation knew who we were and what we stood for, and veterans wanted to join our ranks.... Without the convenience of social media, cell phones, and television campaigns, each member took membership and their passion for The American Legion personally, asked folks to join them, and then gave them a reason to stay." Rohan explained that a shrinking membership base affects everything, resulting in fewer activities, fewer new leaders, fewer new ideas, fewer volunteers, and less clout in Washington, D.C. "We are still an organization to be reckoned with and our support of our programs like Operation Comfort Warriors, our Legacy Scholarships, and our Americanism and Children & Youth Programs are proof of that," she said. "It is time for us to help eligible veterans understand that in order for us to help our current and future veterans, we need members like us to pay it forward. And the best way to do that is to become members of an organization, members of a family that has almost 100 years of proven, continuous service." Rohan said The American Legion's new proposed membership plan will be presented to the Legion NEC in May.
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