A perspective from Legion's top commander

Wednesday, July 15, 2015
Representatives from American Legion posts 26 and 101 in Mountain Home present the colors during the opening ceremony of the American Legion's state convention in Mountain Home last week.

Medical care for military veterans and deep personnel cuts in the U.S. armed forces remain the top concerns for one of the nation's largest veterans organizations.

Michael D. Helm, national commander for the American Legion, outlined these and other issues during his visit to Mountain Home last week during the organization's state convention.

More than 300 veterans from Mountain Home and communities across Idaho attended this year's gathering, which concluded with a banquet Saturday evening. Helm was among the Legion's national leaders that attended the state-level event, which included senior representatives from the Legion Auxiliary and the Sons of the American Legion.

Members of the American Legion Riders present the colors during the Mountain Home Royals baseball game on Thursday. The baseball club is affiliated with the local American Legion posts. Joining the procession was Quinn Thorne, chaplain with the Sons of the Legion post in Twin Falls, and his brother, Brayden.

Helm credited veterans from American Legion posts 26 and 101 in Mountain Home. Both posts have merged together to "make each other successful," he said.

"Any good American Legion community you go to, you're going to find great people doing things in the community... for the veterans," Helm added.

In Mountain Home's case, both posts "have actually enhanced the American Legion family presence within this community," he said.

Turning to national issues that have the American Legion deeply concerned, Helm said that manning cutbacks across the U.S. military represent a significant issue that will negatively impact service members having to shoulder the burden.

"If you are a career soldier, you would be very concerned right now about where your career is going and where the military is heading," said Helm, a former Army Ranger that served with the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Specifically, Helm and other senior Legion leaders don't agree with plans that call for cutting 40,000 soldiers from the armed forces.

"We think the numbers are getting down there now where it's going to be difficult for a general to say that they can sustain that battle," Helm said.

According to military doctrine, the U.S. military needs a fighting force capable of engaging in one conflict overseas with enough forces standing by to deploy to another part of the world to deal with a separate contingency, he said. Meanwhile, the armed forces need to continue training and refitting the rest of its troops.

"We can't say that about our U.S. military," Helm said regarding its current level of readiness.

At the same time, Helm said top military leaders at the Pentagon are reluctant to come forward and say they're struggling with these force cuts, "because it jeopardizes their position." Instead, their official position remains that the U.S. military remains the most effective fighting force in the world and ready to execute the mission.

"But you can also feel a little bit of concern about where that fighting force really is today," Helm added.

The American Legion commander emphasized that military readiness is just part of the equation. With members of the armed forces continuing to deploy overseas in the fight against global terrorism, many of them are returning home with physical scars as well as mental and emotional wounds.

It's important for these and other veterans to have access to quality medical care through the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to Helm.

"Our number one concern in the Legion is the health care of the military person who has borne the battle and does need that care," he said.

In recent months, members of the American public have come forward with proposals to privatize medical care for military veterans. This comes just months after reports surfaced that some VA hospitals were providing inadequate care or veterans died after waiting for months to see a doctor or receive treatment.

The American Legion does not support plans to privatize health care provided to military veterans, Helm emphasized.

"We believe in that health care system," the Legion's national commander said regarding the VA.

During his travels across the country, Helm has seen VA hospitals that are working extremely well with teams of doctors and health care providers providing excellent care for their patients. At the same time, however, he's seen other medical centers that are not doing nearly as well.

The problem, according to Helm, originates at the local level within these VA hospitals. But once veterans get through the obstacles standing between them and their doctors and health care providers, the system works very well, he added.

Another concern involving the Legion deals with the number of veterans leaving the military with post-traumatic stress syndrome and traumatic brain injuries they sustained in combat. Military doctors and VA medical providers are using far too many drugs to treat these condition versus using alternative treatments that would bring these people to a fuller recovery in the long term, he said.

"The way we're using drugs now, three things happen when that goes wrong -- drug abuse, homelessness and suicide," Helm added. "Far too much of that is in our veteran population, so we need to continue to work on that."

Complicating that problem is that military medical center and the VA use different types of medication to treat those conditions, Helm said.

"It's absolutely mind boggling," he added.

Other issues affecting today's veterans deal specifically with those leaving the military, especially those on active duty. In addition to starting a new career in the civilian world, many of them need to further their education.

Some veterans are also discovering that the skills they learned in the military are "not respected in the civilian community," Helm said.

"For example, a medic can't just come in an become an EMT," he added. "The civilian community mandates that they go back to school and start over from square one."

To alleviate these types of obstacles and setbacks, the American Legion is working with various civilian professions to find ways to transfer the skills service members learn during their time into the military to similar careers in the civilian sector.

"There ought to be a credit there," he said.

At the same time, veterans have skills that qualify them to begin working in management-level positions versus having to start from the bottom of the ladder, according to Helm.

For example, an Army staff sergeant with 20 years of service has spent years leading troops into combat and not stocking shelves at a local supermarket. They have leadership, supervisory and management skills that should allow them to enter a similar career once they leave the service.

"The civilian community needs to understand how valuable that is," Helm said.

Military veterans have a proven track record of putting service before self and providing the best they can to their nation, he added.

"That's an important commodity in the civilian community," he said regarding this level of personal discipline and training.

According the Helm, there are more than 20 million veterans currently living in the United States today. Out of those men and women, approximately 2.4 million are affiliated with the American Legion.

While the number of veterans involved in the Legion in communities like Mountain Home remains strong, Helm is seeing those numbers fall in other posts with fewer of today's military members wanting to get involved. A lot of that is tied into the lifestyle these veterans live, which is significantly different than previous generations.

However, Helm expects those numbers will rise once these men and women get older and want to return to their military roots and get involved in the Legion.

"I have great faith in where we're going," he said.

In addition to being an advocate for veterans, the reason why so many people join the Legion comes down to one word: Comradeship, according to Helm.

Service members and veterans make up less than 1 percent of the nation's population. However, this small percentage of Americans represents a very special group of men and women.

"That's what makes the American Legion such a special organization," he said. "We keep the promises military members made to one another."