by Nat Frothingham
A large crowd of members and friends of American Legion Post 3 gathered for dinner on October 23 to welcome Denise Rohan, the first-ever woman elected to serve as American Legion National Commander. Rohan was elected to the post on August 24, 2017, at the Legion’s national convention in Reno, Nevada.
Post 3 Legion member Ron Waggoner, who organized the October 23 chicken-and-biscuit welcome for Denise Rohan, said he had set up the dinner for 82 people. “This is one of the biggest crowds we will have this year,” said Waggoner.
The American Legion was started in Paris in 1918 by World War I veterans, many of whom were still suffering from shell shock. Today’s American Legion – some two-million-members strong – represents veterans who served America during a combat era.
During a short break after dinner but before she spoke to the Legion Hall crowd, Rohan talked briefly with The Bridge. “I just really believe in this organization,” she said at the outset, “because of the Legion’s commitment to make sure that vets are taken care of.”
Rohan, who has been travelling and speaking to American Legion members since her August 24 election, has visited Texas, Kansas, Indiana, New Hampshire, Maine, and now Vermont.
She hit on four areas of concern that define the Legion’s current mission.
First, veterans affairs and rehab;
Second, national security;
Third, what she called “Americanism.” And Rohan’s idea of Americanism includes reminding vets of their duties as American citizens, to both exercise their democratic rights and to vote.
And fourth, children and youths – reaching out to children and youths through such activities as Boys’ and Girls’ State, American Legion baseball, and American Legion scholarships.
Turning to her own groundbreaking role as the first woman to serve as National Commander in the almost 100-year history of the American Legion, she offered this wry comment, “I jokingly said they were waiting for me.”
There may be some truth in that. Perhaps the American Legion was waiting for her. But still, Rohan worked very hard to secure election as National Commander. “Two years campaigning for a one-year job,” she said.
Rohan hails from the Middle West. She was born in McGregor, Iowa, then lived in Elkader, Iowa.
In 1974, she joined the U.S. Army and took her basic training at Fort McClellan, Alabama.
“I was a quartermaster,” she said about her Army career. An American Legion biographical narrative provides these additional details, “She served on active duty as a stock control and accounting specialist and repair part specialist course instructor at Fort Lee, Virginia, until her honorable discharge in 1976.”
In 1984, she joined the American Legion, and since then both she and her husband have risen through the Legion ranks.
In civilian life, Rohan worked for the University of Wisconsin (Madison) as the assistant bursar of student loans until her retirement in 2012. Ultimately, as her duties grew, Rohan managed a complicated student loan portfolio, not just on behalf of the University of Wisconsin at Madison but also for the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay and also the University of Wisconsin colleges. That overall student loan portfolio, with 200 different federal, institutional, and state programs amounted to $120 million.
During her interview with The Bridge, she noted that today’s military consists of 38 percent women. “They are going into combat. They are serving alongside their male counterparts,” she said.
She also talked of vets who have repeatedly answered their country’s call. “Some of them have been deployed six or seven times,” she said. “We have to be sure they are taken care of.”
In her short speech to the Post 3 audience, she began by describing what it was like to be elected National Commander, saying, “It’s scary, but it’s a great honor. They had to make an adjustment to have a woman as National Commander.”
Rohan has established “Family First” as the theme for her one-year term. As she explored the idea of family and talked of veterans caring for other veterans, she gave this example. “If you are in a rural town, you might be the only military person there.”
Talking about soldiers facing deployment, she said, “They aren’t worried about what they are facing overseas.” What they’re really worried about is the family they leave behind. “Just make sure my family is okay.” That’s their chief concern, she said.
Rohan told her Legion Post 3 audience about a little girl who was the oldest of three children. Their father had been deployed, and this little girl was trying to “step up” and be brave and be an example to her younger siblings.
According to Rohan, the little girl was in the audience when a Gold Star father talked about losing his son. She began to cry and couldn’t stop crying.
Said Rohan, the little girl had not lost her father. But she felt pressure to take care of her brother and sister. And hearing the Gold Star father talk about his son who didn’t come back made the little girl fear that her father might not come back. She had been suppressing these thoughts in taking care of her younger brother and sister. But hearing from a father who had lost a son made her think of her own father and she couldn’t help crying.
“We make sure that little girl and her family get counseling,” said Rohan. “It’s okay to be afraid that your dad might not come home.”
“I’m proud of the American Legion,” Rohan said as her talk concluded. “This is what we do. That’s who we are.”