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The Centennial Commander: Reistad visits Brainerd American Legion

The American Legion National Commander Brett Reistad (left) speaks with Dolly Zitur prior to speaking engagements Tuesday, March 12, at Legion Post 255 on 708 Front St. in Brainerd. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch1 / 2
Members of the Brainerd American Legion chapter mingle during a ceremonious breakfast the morning of Tuesday, March 12, at Legion Post 255 on 708 Front St. Members of the Legion welcomed National Commander Brett Reistad during the 100th year of the veterans organization. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch2 / 2

For the Centennial Commander, it was something of a homecoming.

Well, for Brett Reistad, the official title is National Commander of the American Legion, the highest office in the veterans organization and one—which the moniker alludes to—he took the reins of in the 100th year of the Legion's storied history, a century after the end of World War I.

During a breakfast put on by Legion Post 255 in downtown Brainerd, Reistad fulfilled his role—one part ceremonious and steeped in tradition, the other friendly and grounded in a dry, no-nonsense kind of way. Brainerd was a leg in a statewide tour—which, in and of itself, is a stop in a journey for the Legion's leader through all 50 states, as well as destinations abroad.

"The idea is to connect with the local Legionnaires that I represent. To get a chance to talk with them one on one, to find out what their concerns are, what their issues are," Reistad said when the festivities wound down.

But for the native Virginian—veteran and ex-cop, amateur historian and lover of strawberry shortcake—Tuesday's waffle gathering comes full circle in its own way. The Legion may be celebrating its centennial, but it's been less than six months since Reistad was elected at the national convention in Minneapolis. Since then, it's been a whirlwind, much of it centered around stumping for the social and political interests of American war veterans.

The Minnesota American Legion sports 70,000 members enrolled in nearly 540 posts across the state. Currently, the organization features nearly 2 million members, which renders it the largest organization and advocacy group for wartime service veterans in the country.

Second-class citizens

Reistad lauded bills circulating around Capitol Hill, which would relieve Congress of its authority to dictate who and when war veterans are eligible for membership with the American Legion, and instead grant this authority to the Legion itself through a charter amendment.

"In the past, the dates have been corresponding with what Congress deems war era dates. So you have your World War II, Korean War, Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Desert Storm and post-9/11," Reistad said. "Currently, what we'd like to do is change that to give the Legion authority to accept members who served Dec. 7, 1941, to the present day."

In the meantime, Reistad said turning away deserving veterans simply because they didn't serve during a particular set of dates is a disheartening experience and amounts to treating these former soldiers as "second-class citizens."

Veterans and suicide

Reistad noted about 22 veterans die from suicide each day—an epidemic, he said, the Legion is actively battling against through promoting suicide prevention education, as well as providing resources for veteran mental health. He noted the Legion is partnered with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs in this endeavor.

"I feel for the veterans and their families every time I hear that happens," Reistad said. "I think what we can do is put a focus on that issue, we can find ways to steer those veterans to treatment to stop that from happening. It's a community problem as much as an individual problem."

Blue Water Navy Bill

Reistad noted the American Legion has been advocating for the passage of a bill—dubbed the Blue Water Navy Bill—that would grant the same kinds of protections, benefits and resources for victims of Agent Orange to not only land-based or inland-waterway veterans, but also affected members of the National Coast Guard and Navy just off the coast.

While the bill failed again in December, Reistad noted this isn't the first time the Legion has faced stiff opposition—pointing, in particular, to an independent study the Legion founded in 1989 to study the effects of Agent Orange in the first place. This study, along with lobbying by the Legion, Reistad said, led to a number of bills that aid affected veterans to this day.

So called "blue water veterans," or service members just off the Vietnam coast, but still down wind of the toxic deforestation activities, should not be excluded, he noted, especially when there's plenty of evidence to show detrimental effects as a result.

"That's a big focus right now," he said.

Looking back

Beyond providing a unique kind of structure and camaraderie indelible to military life, Reistad said, the Legion has a litany of achievements it can look back at, after 100 years, and be proud of. Included in the list, but not exclusive to, the Legion has been instrumental in:

• The creation of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

• The establishment of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, or the G.I. Bill (and its subsequent iterations).

• The enactment of the Agent Orange Act of 1991.

• Veterans preference, or essentially the practice by which the federal government grants military veterans preference in job searches and the recruitment process.

• The establishment of veterans committees in both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of representatives.

• The establishment, in part, of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery.

Gabriel Lagarde

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