Bobbie Baldridge says the signing last week of the Legion Act was long overdue.
Baldridge, the secretary of American Legion Auxiliary Unit 66 in Sahuarita, said she and many others know veterans who wanted to join but couldn’t because they didn’t meet the requirement of serving in the military during a period of active conflict.
The Legion Act, sponsored by Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and signed last Wednesday by President Trump, changes all that.
The law extend membership eligibility to all veterans who were honorably discharged since World War II. In the past, those who served in the years between conflicts, such as the period between the Korean and Vietnam wars, weren’t able to join.
The decision to allow veterans to join was never a choice an American Legion Post could make on its own; eligibility has always been dictated by Congress.
“For people who served to be told, 'No, you can’t join because Congress tells us,' not only does it hurt them, it actually hurts us,” said Gary Hoffman, commander of American Legion Post 66.
Hoffman tried to find ways in for those veterans who couldn’t join in the past through possible membership in the Sons of the American Legion if they had a parent in the military. But that strategy doesn’t work for everyone and there were some veterans who have felt slighted, Hoffman said.
Mike Hale, the adjutant of American Legion Post 66, called the old rules for membership “goofy.”
“They still served our country, they still defended our country. Should we have gone to war or anything during that time frame, they would have had to go because they were in the military,” he said.
There are about 1,900,000 members of the American Legion around the world, according to John Raughter, a national spokesman for the American Legion. The Legion operates posts in the United States and on American military bases in Europe and Africa.
Raughter said there could be as many as 6 million veterans who would now be able to join the American Legion. He couldn’t say how many of those veterans he thinks would actually do it, but the boost in membership is something many at Legion Post 66 eagerly anticipate.
“We are desperately hoping that that opens the door to a much larger number of people who will be at least eligible to join this organization. What we have to do is make them aware that they can now join,” Hale said.
Hoffman said their post will try to take out advertisements in newspapers and they are trying to spread the word online through social media.
American Legion Post 66 has about 3,200 members who have paid membership fees for 2019. Many of those pay a yearly membership fee of $40, however, a little over 90 of Post 66’s members have paid lifetime membership fees to the organization.
The amount a veteran has to pay for lifetime membership depends on their age, if someone is 25, they might have to pay around $1,500 for lifetime membership, Hale said.
Despite the robust numbers at Post 66, American Legion membership is decreasing nationwide, Hale said.
“In terms of membership we are on a slight decline currently,” he said.
Dan Cady, the commander of American Legion Madera Post 131 in Green Valley, which has about 840 members, believes the survival of organizations like the American Legion depends on their ability to attract younger veterans to join.
“That’s every veterans service organization’s challenge right now, is to prove they’re not just a lounge or they’re not just a bunch of senior citizens sitting around remembering war efforts,” Cady said.
Legions members can benefit from the advice of veteran service officers, who often help members of the legion if they are having issues with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Legion Post Madera 131 can help veterans find employment opportunities through organizations like Arizona@work, Cady said.
Hoffman said some younger veterans don’t really think about joining the legion when they leave the military; they have other priorities, such as taking care of their families and furthering their careers. Some might be too busy to join the legion.
“When I came out of the military and when I started a career and family… I didn’t have time to go to the legion,” Hoffman said. “So when I got closer to the end of my career and my family was done, then I went back to join the legion and got involved in the legion.”
Growing membership is important for the legion since it helps maintain influence among politicians. In June, with the support of the legion, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act was signed into law, extending disability benefits to Navy veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam from 1962-75.
“The larger we are, the more influence we have,” Raughter said. “We are so tremendously influential. If you look at any of our national conventions it is not unusual at all to have the president of the United States to be there, cabinet members to be there, presidential candidates.”