The banquet room inside American Legion Post 205 in Franklin reverberated with laughter and chatter, as dozens of veterans packed in for the weekly night meal.
They sat in groups with their spouses, sharing a drink or a story of their service, as well as enjoying the camaraderie that is at the center of the American Legion. The gathered group represented more than 70 years of military service, with Korean War veterans commiserating with Vietnam War vets and those who served in the current War on Terror.
"It’s a chance for all of these guys to get together," said Randy Weathers, commander at Post 205. “There’s that continued call to service that all of us are compelled to have.”
American Legion rules require members to have served the country during wartime. But a change to those regulations opens up membership to potentially millions of veterans.
New federal legislation that took effect in July redefined what is considered the wartime era, extending it all the way back to Dec. 7, 1941. That means that anyone who served in that time period can take advantage of American Legion benefits and programs, such as medical care, employment services and educational opportunities.
The change will not only prove to benefit an entirely new group of veterans, but expand potential membership at local American Legions.
“It’s a two-way street. There’s a benefit to the veteran, and there’s a benefit to the organization,” Weathers said. “The veterans now have a voice and an advocate to help them get the benefits they deserve. And the other side of the coin is the benefit to the organization, with new guys coming in.”
The American Legion was founded in 1919 as a patriotic veterans organization, which remains the largest wartime veterans group in the U.S. Activities include mentoring youth, sponsoring programs throughout the community, promoting patriotism and advocating for fellow service members and veterans.
Officers with the organization can help veterans work with the Veterans Administration to get health care, navigate paperwork with them to obtain other benefits, and direct them to services they’re entitled to.
Prior to passage of the Let Everyone Get Involved in Opportunities for National Service Act — better known as the LEGION Act — membership in the American Legion was restricted to veterans who served during active wartime.
The rules made sense, as membership was extended to veterans who had served in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the War on Terror, among other conflicts.
But those restrictions left gaps among a large number of veterans who served during the Cold War era.
The threats to U.S. security were very real during that period, and about 1,600 U.S. service members were killed or wounded in military operations that did not fall into recognized periods of war.
Now, they are fully covered by the American Legion’s services.
“Those folks made sacrifices, whether it was in the (National) Guard or active duty. They still made that commitment, but they weren’t eligible,” said Brian Herbert, adjutant commander at Post 205. “The reality was, we still had conflicts and things going on at that time.”
The LEGION Act was passed on July 23, and President Trump signed it into law on July 30. The law expands American Legion membership to an estimated 6 million veterans, a monumental change fitting as the organization celebrates its 100th anniversary.
“As we celebrate our centennial anniversary, we hold to the same truths that our founders appropriately crafted a century ago,” said Brett Reistad, national commander for the American Legion. “Among those: a veteran is a veteran. It does not matter whether a veteran fought enemies on foreign soil, protected our interests in an ocean far away or secured our national defense here at home. Their service is what matters most. Now, thanks to this legislation, all veterans will be properly remembered for their service.”
In Johnson County, American Legion posts are located in Franklin, Greenwood and Edinburgh. The groups are active in the community, from helping organize services for Memorial Day and Veterans Day to supporting schools and youth group.
On top of services for veterans, the organization is active with community groups, supporting Boy Scouts, baseball teams and Hoosier Boys State, a week-long immersion program for high school students focused on the political process, government and leadership. They sponsor an essay contest and offer scholarships.
“There’s a host of things designed to develop and instill in our future generation Americanism, patriotism, those sorts of ideals,” Herbert said. “The stronger we can make the organization, the stronger we can make our communities.”
Membership at veterans organizations throughout the country have fallen, as groups struggle with ways to continue engaging with the community and spreading the word about what they do. Older generations of veterans aren’t being replaced by new, younger veterans, Weathers said.
Opening up the opportunity to join the American Legion to a whole new group of veterans will only help the long-term health of their organizations, Weathers said.
“It’s a boost in membership. It’s potential for the organization to survive and thrive,” he said.
AT A GLANCE
Let Everyone Get Involved In Opportunities for National Service Act
What: Legislation passed in July that opens up membership to the American Legion to anyone who served in the military from Dec. 7, 1941, to now.
What has changed: Prior to being passed, membership to the American Legion was restricted to those who served during wartime. The law now recognizes the Cold War era as wartime for the United States
Who does it affect: Membership is now open to approximately 6 million more veterans