by Kate Shunney
The National Commander of American Legion post across the country made a stop in Berkeley Springs last Wednesday, March 13 during a tour of posts that will coincide with the organization’s centennial celebration.
Brett Reistad received a Tri-State Honor Guard welcome on Wednesday afternoon at American Legion Post 60 and more than 50 members attended the reception sponsored by the Post 60 family of organizations.
Post 60 Commander Dan Duckwall introduced Reistad to the crowd, said it could be the first time the Berkeley Springs Legion had hosted a national commander.
“It’s quite an honor,” said Duckwall, who was flanked by Auxiliary, Sons of the American Legion and regional officers at the speaker’s table.
Reistad, who is halfway through his year as National Commander, revisited some of the history of the organization that is celebrating the 100th birthday of its founding this year.
Reistad said Berkeley Springs was the 31st department he had visited as Commander. He hopes to visit 55 before his term is over.
“I’m very, very honored to be serving as your National Commander,” he said.
Reistad is from Manassas, Va. and served in the Army during the Vietnam War. After his military service, he worked for 26 years as a law enforcement officer, retiring from the Fairfax County Police Department as a lieutenant.
Last week was the 100th anniversary of the first caucus of veterans that later formed the American Legion.
Following Armistice Day 1919, the organization emerged as a leading force to care for returning soldiers.
“Legion posts started popping up all over the country,” said Reistad.
“Four to five million served in World War I. When they came back home, there was no infrastructure in place to take care of veterans,” he said.
The newly formed Legion worked closely with the government to build hospitals for injured veterans, many still sick from tuberculosis or other wartime exposures and injuries. That partnership later transformed into the nation’s Department of Veteran’s Affairs.
“Our First World War veterans never expected the organization to last past their lifetimes,” said Reistad. “As we all know, then World War II came along.”
He noted that the American Legion drafted the U.S. Flag Code, and a former Legion Commander wrote the draft of the 1944 Serviceman’s Readjustment Act, the earliest version of the G.I. Bill.
Reistad said passage of that law was surprisingly difficult.
“Those against it thought giving those benefits would break the Treasury,” he said.
Today’s G.I. Bill no longer has a time limit under which benefits like educational tuition can be used.
Reistad said it was Legion members who also urged Congress to have committees specifically dedicated to veterans affairs.
He noted that the American Legion was formed to promote Americanism and take care of veterans. He said the organization will be the first to work with the government to serve veterans and the first to criticize it when government policies don’t serve military veterans.
One of those policies being tackled now is the exclusion of certain Vietnam veterans from Agent Orange benefits.
Reistad said the American Legion is working to pass legislation to allow members of the “Blue Water Navy” to get Agent Orange benefits. Those soldiers served up to 12 nautical miles off the shores of northern Vietnam but are suffering from their exposure to the highly toxic defoliant used during the Vietnam War.
The American Legion is also asking for congressional approval to change the war service dates that allow veterans to join the organization. Eligibility would be extended to anyone who had served from December 7, 1941 to today, said Reistad.
Members of Post 60 presented Reistad with gifts of a license plate and t-shirt and a donation toward a soldier comfort charity in his name. The reception included food and refreshments prepared by the post.