ALBION — The largest voice for veterans in this country could be getting louder.
President Donald Trump signed a bill July 30 that changes eligibility rules for joining the American Legion.
According to the American Legion, an additional 6 million veterans nationwide can now join the philanthropic legion and have access to Legion programming and benefits.
The original law limited eligibility for those who served during the following time periods:
• World War I — April 6, 1917-Nov. 11, 1918;
• World War II — Dec. 7, 1941-Dec. 31, 1946;
• Korean War — June 25, 1950-Jan. 31, 1955;
• Vietnam War — Feb. 28, 1961-May 7, 1975;
• Lebanon/Grenada — Aug. 24, 1983-July 31, 1984;
• Panama — Dec. 20, 1989-Jan. 31, 1990; and
• Gulf War/War on Terrorism — Aug. 2, 1990-present.
The new standards keep the World War I dates, but add every service member who has served his or her country from Dec. 7, 1941, until a date yet to be determined by the federal government.
According to Garrett American Legion Commander Larry Funk, more legion members doesn’t just swell the ranks, it means more clout in Washington, D.C.
Funk said the national commander of the Legion meets with Trump and has sway with trying to keep veterans’ concerns in the forefront of domestic policy, including the Veterans Administration and its health care facilities.
“We are the largest veterans organization in the country,” Funk said.
The American Legion is the largest wartime veterans service organization with nearly 2 million members and more than 12,000 posts in America, according to the organization’s website. The American Legion was established by Congress in 1919. It is credited with getting the original GI Bill through Congress and the creation of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The change in eligibility is welcome, if too late for some veterans.
Kelly Harris died in 1986 after having served overseas in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Because he didn’t join until after the prescribed date in 1975, Harris was not eligible to join the Legion.
His brother, former Albion American Legion Post 246 Commander John Harris, served in 1984-89, making him eligible.
While pleased with the change, Harris only wishes it could have happened sooner.
“We’ve kind of kicked some veterans in the face by not letting them in,” Harris said. “I feel it left a sour taste (in some veterans’ mouths). It soured them. You’re good enough now, but you weren’t good enough then.”
Both Funk and Harris said they would encourage those missed veterans who served in any of those gap times to join the Legion now.
“We want to bring people in,” Harris said. “It gives a veteran the opportunity to talk to other veterans.”
Many American Legion posts in northeastern Indiana are very active. They hold patriotic contests for school children, teach youngsters flag etiquette and offer scholarships to high school graduates.
Harris has been very active in his post.
“It’s well worth my time,” Harris said. “It brings self-gratification. It’s not just a beer joint. It’s good for the community.”