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Veterans Inaugural Ball salutes Medal of Honor recipients, veterans, servicemembers

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Newly sworn-in Vice President Mike Pence paid tribute to Medal of Honor recipients, veterans and servicemembers Friday night at The American Legion-hosted Veterans Inaugural Ball — A Salute to Heroes.

“We are here tonight because we know those who are being honored this evening, the Medal of Honor recipients who are present with us,” Pence said. “I am very humbled to be in your presence. We honor those of you in the room, and those who have come before, and have gone above and beyond. You are an inspiration to all of us. And I know you are an inspiration to our new president.”

The Veterans Inaugural Ball – Salute to Heroes is hosted by The American Legion and the Veterans Inaugural Committee, made up of 15 congressionally chartered veterans service organizations. The ball started in 1953 at the request of President Dwight Eisenhower as an opportunity for the newly elected commander-in-chief to pay tribute to Medal of Honor recipients. Since then every ball has been attended by either the new president and/or vice president.

Pence, who spoke just before midnight as dozens of attendees recorded his remarks from the dance floor, also thanked all of those who served.

“It’s especially humbling to me to be with you tonight,” said Pence, whose father was an Army combat veteran and whose son is in the Marine Corps. “I think it is all together fitting for someone who has not worn the uniform to stop at an occasion like this and make sure that you all know that as we celebrate the peaceful transfer of power in America, we know the real heroes are those of you who have worn the uniform and made the sacrifices.”

Pence also vowed to support key Legion initiatives. “America now has a president who will rebuild our military, restore the arsenal of democracy and give our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen the resources and training they need to accomplish their missions to protect our families and come home safe again.”

During his inaugural address, President Donald Trump alluded to national security. “We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement, and most importantly, we are protected by God.”

In one of his first acts as president, Trump signed a proclamation declaring a national day of patriotism. He also spoke of patriotism during his 15-minute long address.

“It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American flag,” Trump said.

American Legion National Commander Charles E. Schmidt is eager to work with the new leadership in Washington.

“It’s a great day here in Washington, D.C., in America and also for The American Legion,” Schmidt said. “We just saw the peaceful transition of power. We have a new administration and a new Congress that has already started up. It’s a great beginning. And The American Legion will be right along to work with the new administration and new Congress, doing what we have been doing since 1919. That is taking care of our veterans, their families and standing up and speaking for our America.”

Schmidt will return to the nation’s capital in about six weeks for the Legion’s Washington Conference, where he will give testimony to members of Congress.

“We review our legislative priorities and Legionnaires from every department go on Capitol Hill and we walk the halls of Congress, sitting down with our respective representatives, talking about the priorities that The American Legion is concerned about. And it’s not priorities just for The American Legion. It’s priorities for all veterans. We do advocate on many issues — keeping VA funded and on track, and also the entitlements that veterans and their families receive. And we don’t forget our servicemembers around the world today.”

It’s important to work with Congress on these issues, Schmidt noted, “because these issues will help veterans long after we are gone.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan thanked The American Legion for hosting the Veterans Inaugural Ball. In his address, Ryan mentioned two priorities for Congress: Fix Veterans Affairs “so veterans can get the care they deserve” and “rebuild our military.”

Ryan also paid tribute to the 34 Medal of Honor recipients in attendance, nearly half of those living today.

“It’s an honor to be here at such an historic event,” he said. “And I don’t mean that today is Inauguration Day. What I mean is not the opportunity to meet just one Medal of Honor recipient but to be in the presence of dozens. It’s amazing and I am in awe.”

Ryan extended his thanks to everyone who has served or continues to wear the uniform. “The reason we can have a peaceful transition of power is because of you,” he said. “Please know that we will never forget who keeps the peace. To all of our veterans and all of our servicemembers, I simply want to say, thank you.”

Among those attending the ball was Ted Roosevelt IV, the grandson of one of the Legion’s founding members, as well as a Navy veteran and Legionnaire.

“I think Grandfather would be delighted to see The American Legion is still thriving and is strong, having an impact on public policy,” Roosevelt said. “Some of the recent things the Legion has done — we all know the work the Legion did in creating the GI Bill — but a lot of people don’t know that we transformed the law about Agent Orange, which originally was thought by authorities in the United States to not cause the damage it did. And, more recently, the work we have done on PTSD, which is very important.”

On the lighter side, comedian and “Price is Right” host Drew Carey served as the ball’s emcee.

“It’s an honor to be here because of all the Medal of Honor recipients,” said Carey, who mentioned that it took him only seconds to accept the invitation. “I knew it would be super cool to do and to bring my son to meet some of these guys. It will provide some inspiration for him and me, too.”

As for his service as a Marine Corps reservist in the 1980s, Carey joked that he “kept the commies out of Ohio,” adding that he got a perfect score on his physical fitness test. “Take that, Medal of Honor recipients.”

On a serious note, Carey mentioned that the “Price Is Right” often has veterans-specific shows. “It’s always consistently humbling,” he said. “At the ‘Price Is Right,’ I’ve had the opportunity to meet five people in the audience who are World War II veterans. And they come with their Legion or World War II hat on. And you don’t often get to meet someone and sincerely say, ‘Hey, thanks for beating Hitler.’”

Medal of Honor recipient Flo Groberg was impressed to not only see the swearing-but the attendance of past presidents, including Barack Obama.

“I was honored to be one of the individuals out there in the crowd,” said Groberg, a member of The American Legion. “It’s a celebration about our veterans, our military. We have incredible men and women out there who are doing great work for us so we can have these types of events, and our freedoms.”

Groberg is director of Veteran, Outreach and Community Engagements for the Boeing Co., one of the ball’s sponsors.

“We have the opportunity to sponsor The American Legion’s National Poppy Day and we are really passionate about it,” he said. “The fact that we get to remember our history and those who didn’t come home, and their families. At Boeing, this is our nature. This is who we are. This is our ethos. It’s everything that we believe in. Supporting our veterans, supporting our military is who we are. I’m glad to be a part of that team.”

American Airlines was the premier sponsor of the ball and UPS sponsored the dinner. Other event sponsors included Walmart, Moore DM Group, Applied Information Sciences, T Mobile, Farmers Insurance, BAE Systems, Oak Grove Technologies, Samsung and many other supporting sponsors.

Jim Palmersheim, director of military affairs for American Airlines, thanked The American Legion for the opportunity.

“Patriotism is defined by what you do,” said Palmersheim, an Army veteran. “We cannot thank our veterans enough. It’s reflected in our employees. Over 100,000 of my colleagues who give so much to give back. Many of our employees at American Airlines are serving as reservists now. Just know, at the end of the day at American Airlines, all of our veterans and all of those who are currently serving and all of the families here, know that we got your six. We’re here to support you.

“Without your service and sacrifice, there is no democracy that we celebrate tonight. And Without democracy there is no freedom.”

National Vice Commander Paul Espinoza of New Mexico attended his first inauguration, calling it “an awesome experience.” He said attending the swearing-in ceremony “was a great honor, representing The American Legion. It was a great speech that President Trump gave, whether you are for or against him.”

Roger Donlon, a 29-year member of American Legion Post 172 in New York, is among the Medal of Honor recipients attending this week’s inauguration festivities. Donlon appreciates the fact that the Legion hosts the ball for the new commander-in-chief and Medal of Honor recipients. “The Legion has been a touchstone for myself, my brothers and my whole hometown,” he said.

Bob Morrill, a member of Post 942 in Webster, N.Y., noted the Legion’s role in nonpartisan support of veterans.

“It’s very important for The American Legion to show its support for veterans around the country,” Morrill said. “For almost 100 years, the Legion has supported veterans with anything they needed. And this is another indication, with the transfer of power, that we are nonpartisan and we support whoever is in office and the administration. We hope for the best for the country and the future.”

Watch a Facebook live video of the ball here.

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Medal of Honor recipients gather to witness history, strengthen bonds

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Roughly half of the living 76 Medal of Honor recipients are gathering in Washington, D.C., for today’s inauguration and the Veterans Inaugural Ball — A Salute to Heroes.

The Veterans Inaugural Ball — hosted by The American Legion and the Veterans Inaugural Committee, comprised of 15 congressionally chartered veterans service organizations — is the longest-continuous veterans ball. It began in 1953 at the request of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and offers the newly-elected or re-elected commander-in-chief the opportunity to pay tribute to Medal of Honor recipients.

At the same time, the ball represents an opportunity for Medal of Honor recipients to witness first-hand the transition of power, reacquaint with their fellow recipients and share the medal’s values — patriotism, service, sacrifice, courage, integrity and commitment.

“The inauguration is an example of why I love this country so much — the peaceful transition of power,” said retired Army Capt. Florent Groberg, the first foreign-born recipient since the Vietnam War. “We’ve seen this specific political season be hectic, chaotic and hostile but (Friday) we are going to see President Obama give power to President Trump. It’s peaceful. It represents our country. It just who we are. And very few other countries really do it the way we do. And that’s why we fight and it’s what our Constitution is all about. It’s an honor to be a part of it.”

While this is Groberg’s first inauguration, Roger Donlon has seen many first-hand. As the first Medal of Honor recipient from the Vietnam War, Donlon was a special guest in 1965.

“I don’t know how it happened but I got invited by President (Lyndon) Johnson to all of the balls,” said Donlon, a 29-year member of American Legion Post 172 in New York. “I got to escort his beautiful daughter. Every inaugural has a special dimension to it. My wife first attended in 1969, (Richard) Nixon’s first. There were 350 living Medal of Honor recipients. You talk about herding cats. I was a young captain, 30 years old. I looked at these guys and thought, ‘God almighty. Some of these guys are here 50 or 60 years after their battles. They’re still kicking. What a crew this is.’ We took some lessons from them and learned a lot.”

And, today, Donlon and others are mentoring younger recipients such as Groberg, who received his medal on Nov. 12, 2015.

“I enjoy going to Medal of Honor events because I get to hear the stories of these incredible achievements that these individuals have taken in their lives, not for just the actions that led to receiving the medal but what they have done after,” said Groberg, also a member of The American Legion. “They’re leaders in their communities.

“It’s all about how you want it. There is a big generation disconnect. There are technology — social media — differences. But you cannot take away the experience that these individuals have. If you don’t think you can learn anything from them, you are wrong — especially in the first year.”

For Donlon, events such as the inaugural are a way to spend time with his extended medal family. This week’s celebrations are believed to be the largest gathering of Medal of Honor recipients outside of their annual national convention.

“We get to know the recipients but also their families, their wives, their children, their grandchildren,” he said. “Whenever I’ve come to occasions like this, we’ve tried to bring our children and now our grandchildren.”

Donlon’s children and grandchildren have become part of the extended Medal of Honor family. On Thursday, one of his granddaughters texted him from college to wish him well and pass on greetings to the other recipients.

“She texted, ‘I am going to Mass tonight with my roommate, we’ll say prayers for you,’” he said. “That in itself is a blessing to have a granddaughter who is thinking of not only us, but the other medal recipients and their families who she has met during previous occasions.

“It’s been our extended family. It’s a really beautiful thing.”

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Legion helps Student Veterans of America fulfill its mission

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More than 1,300 Student Veterans of America (SVA) chapters can be found on college campuses across the nation, providing a peer-to-peer network and camaraderie as those who have served in uniform work to achieve their educational goals. The American Legion has been an active supporter of SVA since its founding in 2008, working closely with the organization to improve the GI Bill, enhance academic counseling and fight for extended in-state tuition to veterans.

Nearly 1,700 SVA members and supporters, including The American Legion, gathered for the organization’s ninth annual national conference – NatCon2017– in Anaheim, Calif., Jan. 5-7, to network and share ideas.

“Student Veterans of America remains at its heart a grassroots, chapter-based organization that brings together veterans, military family members and civilians to support veterans’ success in higher education and beyond,” SVA President and CEO Jared Lyon told conference attendees. “A lot of veterans, when they get out (of the military), they miss that camaraderie of ours. That's the one common bond in all the branches is the camaraderie. For me, the (SVA) brings that.”

With its “Empowering Tomorrow’s Leaders” theme, NatCon2017 provided 48 breakout sessions that addressed career readiness, higher education, research, student success, SVA chapter management and more. Companies in attendance like Raytheon, Microsoft, Prudential, The Home Depot and Disney also shared career opportunities and mentorship with conference attendees.

“Networking is probably the biggest piece (of the SVA conference),” said Eric Frey, who recently retired from the Oregon Army National Guard after 24 years and is a member of American Legion Post 20 in Dallas, Ore. “Not just networking with the corporate sponsors but networking with the graduate schools, networking between colleges.

“This is the next generation of bringing veterans together and using our service arcs to the betterment of our country. The American Legion started after World War I to bring all those veterans together, and this is the same mission.”

John Kamin, assistant director of the Legion’s Veterans Employment and Education Division, spoke at the conference about how The American Legion is supporting student veterans through education, employment and business development. It was only a few years back that Kamin himself was a student veteran and an SVA member.

“In seeing the energy, excitement and unity of student veterans... it brings me right back to what drew me to a veterans organization in the first place – the belief that not only do our brothers and sisters deserve our support, but by advocating for them, it will make our country better,” Kamin said.

The Legion’s Washington office provided SVA its first office space until the organization was able to secure an office of its own in the nation’s capital. And together, the Legion and SVA have worked closely to improve the Post-9/11 GI Bill, ensuring that institutions provide quality, accessible college educations that work for today’s veterans. Moving forward, Kamin said the Legion and SVA are crafting a memorandum of understanding that will provide communication opportunities.

While The American Legion and SVA have a successful relationship at the national level, the one at the local level is just as strong. Justine Evirs, program services coordinator for the Veterans Resource and Opportunity Center at the College of San Mateo in California, said the local American Legion Post 105 in Redwood City is one of their biggest supporters.

“We had to build relationships and build trust, but once we got it and they got it, we were off running,” Evirs said. Post 105 offered support by welcoming student involvement at the post and provided a meeting space for them. It was at Post 105 where a student veteran had a mixer and started a “Student Veteran of the Semester” scholarship.

“This scholarship was built to bridge the gap between all the previous wars and post-9/11 and trying to reshape that. That’s where (the post) really helped us and because of that their membership has increased and our membership has increased; everybody's happy.”

The crossover in membership led to new leadership at Post 105. SVA Chapter President Tianna Romero is currently the first vice commander of Post 105 and that has helped flourish the relationship with their community as a whole.

“We have a really good relationship with a lot of community partners because they support us and we support them,” Evirs said. “We all work really well together and I think it’s been an amazing experience, not without speed bumps for sure, but we all work very well together and now we're working on the district level, and it means a lot.”

The SVA conference strived to create a network that will last beyond the three days and be brought back to support fellow veterans.

“You represent a brilliant, diverse group of student veterans who are succeeding on college campuses nationwide,” Lyon said. “NatCon is about discovery. I hope that each of you have discovered at least one new thing about yourself and your fellow veterans. Take that discovery home and share it with anyone that will listen. Never forget, we are the rightful heirs to the greatest generation and the future leaders of America.

“The end of NatCon traditionally marks the beginning of a new year in supporting student veterans. Promise me that you’ll take the lessons learned, the friendships formed, the bonds strengthened, to elevate your SVA chapters, your campuses, and your communities so that you can always leave them better than you found them. Rest assured SVA is here for you.”

Resolution No. 20 was passed at the 2015 American Legion Spring National Executive Committee meeting, encouraging posts, districts and departments to network with selected post-9/11 generation groups like SVA, Team Rubicon, Team Red White and Blue and The Mission Continues. The resolution was driven through the 100th Anniversary Observance Committee as part of its "vision" strategy for the organization as it nears the beginning of its second century of service.

To see the resolution, click here:


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VA to Provide Fertility Counseling and Treatment for Certain Veterans and Spouses

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WASHINGTON - The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced today that it is amending its regulation regarding fertility counseling and treatment available to eligible Veterans and spouses. VA currently provides certain infertility services other than in vitro fertilization (IVF) services to Veterans as part of the medical benefits package. This interim final rule authorizes IVF for a Veteran with a service-connected disability that results in the inability of the Veteran to procreate without the use of fertility treatment. It also states that VA may provide fertility counseling and treatment using assisted reproductive technologies (ART), including IVF, to a spouse of a Veteran with a service-connected disability that results in the inability of the Veteran to procreate without the use of fertility treatment.

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Support for the men and women in blue

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After two Peach County Sheriff’s Department officers were fatally shot in November, American Legion Rider Rodney Blitch and other members of Arthur Leonard Johnson Jr. ALR Chapter 172 in Warner Robbins, Ga., decided they wanted to do something to show their support for local law enforcement.

That’s why Post 172’s Riders and other ALR members from Georgia’s Sixth District braved near-freezing temperatures for a benefit ride earlier this month. More than 50 motorcyclists took part, including 25 Legion Riders. The $20 per person entry fee went to the Fraternal Order of Police.

“At our Rider meeting in November we passed the hat and asked our Riders to put in $20 to go the families (of the slain officers),” Blitch said. “At our next meeting I said that I wanted to do a ride to show our support for all of our local law enforcement folks.”

The Riders chose Jan. 8 – the day before National Law Enforcement Appreciation Day – for the ride. And although it didn’t rain, the weather didn’t exactly cooperate. The temperature was 34 degrees, meaning it felt around 20 degrees colder riding a motorcycle.

“We were planning on riding in what we thought could be 60-degree weather,” Blitch said. “At least that’s what we hoped. But that’s not what we got.”

That didn’t stop the ride, which lasted more than two hours and 90 miles, and included loops around the Warner Robins Law Enforcement Center, the Perry Police Department, the Peach County Sheriff’s Department, the Byron Police Department, the Fort Valley Police Department, the Houston County Sheriff’s Department and the Centerville Police Department.

Blitch said the ride served two purposes: to show support for law enforcement and to maintain an important relationship. Local police and sheriff departments often provide valuable escorts during ALR rides.

“Those who have been on escorted rides know how great it feels to ride through a stoplight or through a stop sign,” Blitch said. “I’m also a Patriot Guard Rider, so I know how important that help is. This ride helped keep that relationship open, and it also helps with community relationships because they see us out there doing something like this.

“We’ve got a great appreciation for what these guys do day in and day out, and we wanted to show that appreciation. This was our way of doing that.”

And in Massachusetts, Dalton Legion Post 155’s Legion Riders hosted a program to recognize the various law-enforcement agencies that provide escorts during its annual rides. The Riders presented plaques and letters to members of those agencies during a breakfast at the post.

Post 155’s Riders have a Memorial Day ride that raises scholarship money for students looking for a career in law enforcement and another ride in August that raises money for veterans.

"I think we should appreciate law enforcement,” ALR Chapter 155 President Michael Lefebvre told “They do nothing but good for us. They do traffic control for us — knock on wood — we've had this 16 years in the Berkshires and we haven't had an accident yet. There's a lot of motorcycle runs for charities and benefits and unfortunately, there's a lot of accidents. They've backed us and been there, and I feel they're unappreciated.”

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