What the American Legion is All About
Veterans are looking for a few things after getting out of the military and organizations like the American Legion are offering exactly what they are looking for. Learn what the American Legion is all about in this episode.
One of the things that organizations like the American Legion have to offer is a sense of belonging. We all had a place in our units. Whether we were the lowest ranking Private, the CO or anywhere in between, we had a place. We were important. We belonged.
The American Legion gives you that sense of belonging. They have ample volunteer opportunities so you can help others with your expertise.
Even bigger than the sense of belonging though is access to the vast knowledge of the older veterans who have come before you. Do you really think that your readjustment to civilian life is unique? Those older Vietnam, Korea, and WWII vets went through that and more. They've screwed up from time to time, and then they've figured things out.
Who in their right mind wouldn't want to have access to that type of a mentor? Pull up a seat at the bar next to someone who walked in your shoes a few decades earlier.
There's a lot more than that going on at the American Legion. If you want to find out more listen to the episode and then visit the American Legion's website or social media to become a member and learn more.
Links & Resources
Scott DeLuzio: 00:03 Thanks for tuning in to the Drive On Podcast where we talk about issues affecting Veterans after they get out of the military. Before we get started, I would like to ask a favor if you haven't done so already, please rate and review the show on Apple podcasts. If you have already done that. Thank you. These ratings help the show get discovered so it can reach a wider audience. And while you are there, click the subscribe button so that you get notified of new episodes as soon as they come out. If you do not use Apple podcasts, you can visit DriveOnPodcast.com/subscribe to find other ways of subscribing, including our emails. I am your host Scott DeLuzio. And now let us get on with the show.
Scott DeLuzio: 00:44 Hey everyone, thanks for joining in the Drive On Podcast. Today my guest is Joseph Sharpe. Joseph is with the American Legion as the director of employment and Veterans transition. Joseph, welcome to the show. Why don’t you go ahead and tell us a little bit about your background, who you are, what you do with the American Legion and then we'll jump into a conversation.
Joseph Sharpe: 01:07 Okay. Again, my name is Joseph Sharpe. I'm the director of the Veterans employment and education division for the American Legion. I'm a retired Army Vet. I spent about 30 years in the military, 14 years active duty and the rest were in the Reserves. As an active duty soldier, my title was Behavioral Science Research Specialist and as a reservist I was a Civil Affairs instructor. I've been with the Legion for about 24 years now. I was also in their veteran affairs visitation division for about six or seven years where we would go out and look at the VA hospitals and look at the quality of care. And then that became the deputy and then director of the veteran’s employment education, where we look out for Veterans as they transition out of the military to ensure that they are gainfully employed and financially stable and they're able to contribute to their communities.
Scott DeLuzio: 02:20 Awesome. So, I mean it seems like you've had a quite a career, not only with the military but also with the American Legion as well, doing a lot of great things for those Veterans that you've been working with. A few months ago, I had someone from another veteran's organization on the show and one of my goals for having someone from that organization was to clear up any misconceptions about what they're all about, what the organization does. And that's what I'd like to do today with you as well. A lot of the younger Veterans think of organizations like the American Legion, the VFW and others like that as an old man's club, like an outdated relic that their grandfathers would go to hang out. I think between you and me, we know that that's not true, but there's this connotation surrounding these organization that sticks with many people. That's one of the things I'd like to clear up with this episode. Why don't you give us a little background on the American Legion? Things like, who's eligible to be a member. What are some of the benefits of being a member? A little of the background, the history of where it came from and what its purpose, what its goal, and things like that.
Joseph Sharpe: 03:49 Well, the American legion recently celebrated its 100th birthday. The legion was formed towards the ending of WWI. In fact, our first conferences was in Paris, France, where those soldiers who were leaving decided they needed to form some sort of organization to keep the brotherhood of military folks alive and to also assist Veterans as they transition out of the military. And since that time, practically every federal program that we currently have, is a program that was formed in lobby by the American Legion. The big example is the 1945 GI bill, which was the catalyst for us to have this huge middle-class today. At that time, we had about 16 million Veterans leaving the military. This is closing WW II. And because of the GI bill, many of those individuals were able to start a farm, start a business, obtain licensing certifications, and they were able to go to college and to graduate.
Joseph Sharpe: 05:15 And that brought about an economic boom in this country that we're enjoying today. That's just one of the things that the American Legion did for Veterans and for the economy and for the country as a whole. Now the American Legion is made up of four pillars. We have our national security division, we have a veteran affairs rehabilitation division, an Americanism division, and children and youth. Not only do we look for the benefit to help Veterans as they transition out, but we also have a lot of programs to assist the Veterans with their children and youth programs where we have a boys state, girls state program, a lot of scholarship programs. We also promote Americanism in our schools. Just to give you one example, our boys state and girls state program was formed back in 1933 as our answer to the Hitler youth program in Germany. And it's still going on to this day, as far as boys state and girls States, a leadership program for individuals that are going into their senior year. And it's been an excellent program since 1933.
Scott DeLuzio: 06:48 Who is eligible to be a member in the American Legion?
Joseph Sharpe: 06:55 Eligibility depends primarily on those individuals that were on active duty during the time of war.
Scott DeLuzio: 07:06 And what are some of the benefits of being a member. I know you talked a little bit about the four pillars of the organization and how you help promote Americanism and various children and youth programs, but for the veteran, what are some of the benefits of being a member in the organization?
Joseph Sharpe: 07:32 Well, one of the benefits is to instill a sense of belonging. Because being in the military is different than being a civilian. And we go through certain hardships and certain experiences that only other Veterans have. And it's great to be around individuals that have the same background and experiences as you have. Plus, we have various programs as well, for example in the Veterans employment education division. We do a lot of advocacy work to make sure that Veterans are hired in the federal government, we also encourage the private sector to hire Veterans. We have our licensing certification program, which is the program to have Veterans certified and receive their credentials prior to them leaving the military. So instead of going under unemployment, once they have that certification, they can go directly to work. We also help Veterans who want to start or grow their small businesses and help them if they want to do any type of federal contract. We're very big at preventing homelessness and advocating for homeless Veterans as well. Our Veterans’ Affairs and rehabilitation program would help Veterans with their service connections. Those that were injured while on active duty ensure that they're compensated properly and able to return to the workforce.
Scott DeLuzio: 09:21 Those sound to me like some great benefits you're doing. A lot of great things really with the Veterans who were either members or who are maybe not members, but they still need some assistance through what you have to offer. So, one of the things I want to circle back to something that you talked about a little bit. On this podcast, we've talked before about things like having a sense of belonging and that's one of the things that you had mentioned as a benefit to be a member in the American Legion. There are some people who listen to this podcast who've been out of the military for a number of years who are missing the sense of belonging that came with being in their unit, with the other soldiers, Marines or whatever branch they were in, being with those individuals.
Scott DeLuzio: 10:23 Can you talk a little bit about how being a member of an organization like the American Legion helps create that sense of belonging or comradery like we used to have while serving in the military? Like what are the functions and other volunteer opportunities and some of the things that foster that sense of belonging within the American Legion?
Joseph Sharpe: 10:51 Well, the best way to explain it is that even though you've left the military, one of the big issues with Veterans who leave the military is that when you join the military, it will take you anywhere for six months to a year to adjust to the military and to understand the culture of the military and be able to complete the training that you received. However, when you leave the military, we generally only give individuals a week to prepare to leave and rejoin the private sector. The Legion or the various service organizations can be that guide to assist those Veterans as they're transitioning out and help them to adapt to being a civilian again, because you really don't have that much time. And so, when you're with individuals that have gone through that experience, you have that connection. The Legion is still about service though they're volunteer opportunities for that individual. You're talking with individuals that had been out for a while who could more or less give you an idea of opportunities in that particular community. Talk to you about healthcare and employment, assist with your family as you had adjust out. It's a way of bridging that gap between being a veteran and suddenly being the civilian and kind of ease that shock of going back into the civilian world.
Scott DeLuzio: 12:53 That's important to have somebody who's walked in your shoes before. They've gone through this whole process of transitioning from military to civilian life. And like you said, it feels like a dimmer when you're getting into the military. It's a gradual process. You don't walk into basic training on day one and instantly you're a soldier or whatever and you know how to act, you know the culture and all this kind of stuff. On the flip side of your career, at the end of your career, it's more like a light switch where at the end you're just turning it off and you can't just turn off the last six, 10, 20 years of your life, and how you've conducted yourself, how the people you've been around, you can't just shut that stuff off right away.
Scott DeLuzio: 13:56 And I feel like a lot of people that I've talked to, haven't described it quite as a shock. But they probably have gone through some sort of a shock and it's probably a fairly traumatic experience for a lot of people who are losing that sense of identity, that sense of purpose. So maybe what are some of the volunteer opportunities that exist within the American Legion? I spoke with somebody else a couple of weeks ago that was talking about doing service mission type projects, building houses for homeless people and other things like that, serving people. I know that's an important part for people in terms of their sense of belonging or their sense of purpose, I should say. What are some of the volunteer opportunities that exist within the American Legion that can help people create that sense of purpose when they get out and now feel like they don't have a sense of purpose anymore after the military?
Joseph Sharpe: 15:15 Well, it's the opportunities to serve are endless. For that veteran who's going back to a particular community or their own, they're all types of homeless projects that many of our posts are involved in beautification of the community, helping out other military families who may be in dire need of trying to keep up with their rent, trying to find employment, assisting disabled Veterans, getting groceries for individuals, cutting their grass, it's just endless. And that's what some of our posts now are doing. With this virus, they are helping a lot families, especially the elderly who are not able to get out and buy groceries or cut the grass or fix the car or provide an outlet for the children and those types of things. And we have some YouTube programs as well, so it runs the gamut of, assisting Veterans and families in the community.
Scott DeLuzio: 16:52 Yeah, that's great. And I think the spirit of volunteering and helping out the community really helps to strengthen the community as a whole when you have people who are willing to do that, especially in times like these that we're in now with the virus that's going around. There are people who are quite frankly just afraid to leave their homes and if you have people who are willing to help out and able to help out, even simple things like getting groceries, it may seem like a simple thing, but to some people it could mean the world to them.
Joseph Sharpe: 17:30 Yeah. Given them a ride to their doctor or a medical clinic or somewhere, something like that.
Scott DeLuzio: 17:37 I want to backtrack a little bit on the background of the American Legion and how it's made up right now. Do you have any numbers or any data on the makeup of the American Legion in terms of which areas the members are from, in terms of WWII era, Korea, Vietnam, all the way through to the more recent wars that are going on in Afghanistan, Iraq, those types of things. Do you have a breakdown of what that looks like?
Joseph Sharpe: 18:20 Well, the American Legion has about two million members. We also have the American Legion, Women's Auxiliary, and their numbers are about 500,000. We have sons of American Legion, they have about 350,000. We have 55 departments. Which is equivalent to a state and the additional five deals with many of our territories, like department of France, department of the Philippines, department of Mexico, and Puerto Rico. As far as the makeup of our Veterans within the Legion, I would say most of them were Vietnam Vets. We also have a large portion of our membership that are post 9/11 individuals as well. We have about 10,000 posts worldwide. We're a pretty large organization.
Scott DeLuzio: 19:35 Have you seen a shift in recent years with the makeup of the membership leaning more towards the post 9/11 era with that membership growing over time. I mean, obviously it's more than it was before 9/11, but has that steadily increased over time?
Joseph Sharpe: 19:58 That membership has grown and when you hear a lot of talk about the American Legion, some of the members being older, I would say the largest proportion of Veterans are Vietnam Veterans. And the reason for that is that, when you're young, you are working, trying to take care of your family. With the Legion, a lot of our Vietnam Veterans have retired so they have more time to really work with the younger generation going through life. So, their expertise is valuable to the younger Veterans that are coming up. Which I see as a plus, they do have the time to put into it and,
Joseph Sharpe: 20:57 for many of our members, it's a godsend to have somebody that's older that is financially stable and that has worked and knows the communities thoroughly, so they can really ease that transition for that veteran, their family into that particular community. So, that's a plus. It's not a negative.
Scott DeLuzio: 21:21 No, absolutely. I like that you emphasize that point too, because I feel like a lot of people who are hesitant about joining an organization like the American Legion are hesitant because they don't want to join a group of crusty old men who are just hanging out and telling them their own old war stories and they're not really feeling like they're going to fit in. I don't think that's going to be the case at all though. I feel like a lot of the older generation of Veterans have more time. A lot of them are retired. They're financially stable. They have the time to volunteer and help those younger vets who might be struggling to figure out their place in this world after they get out of the military. So, having the expertise of those older Veterans is truly valuable to have. And so, having an organization that is full of that type of expertise is important, especially for these younger Veterans who are just getting out of the military, or maybe got out five, 10 years ago.
Joseph Sharpe: 22:52 Think about it, we have young guys that want to come out and they want to start their own businesses. Well, the American Legion has a small business task force made up of successful businessmen/Veterans from across the country, which we can easily connect them to, if they want to do federal procurement well, we have Veterans who are experts in federal cases,
Joseph Sharpe: 23:18 if they want a decent education, we have Veterans that are professors that know those particular universities inside and out and can give them some wisdom on the best way to enroll and what they need to do to get ready to go to school or if they need service connected help, if they wouldn't be service connected for their injuries. Who best to talk to is some of our department service officers who are older and had been helping Veterans with 10 to 20 plus years. It just makes sense to try and connect with Veterans who have that experience because we always tell a Veteran when they are looking for employment, the best thing to do is network. Well, a lot of the corporations that are hiring Veterans, are Legionnaires, so you have that inside scoop to get into something.
Scott DeLuzio: 24:20 I like what you just mentioned, I wanted to circle back to the service connected, like disabilities and things like that. There are people there who will help you through that process. I went through the process on my own, you file for my own disabilities and it was kind of a pain in the neck to do it all on my own, not really knowing the whole process because nobody really sits down and explains what that process is looking like to you. As you're returning from overseas or whatever, that process is a gray area.
Scott DeLuzio: 25:06 You are aware that there is a process that needs to get done. You file paperwork and you go through the steps, but did you really do it all right? Did you do everything that you could to make sure that everything went through correctly and it is a daunting task to do on your own. But if you have people who are there who know what to do, they know the process that's going to make it 10 times easier than it would be if you just go it on your own. I know that the American Legion is also involved in several legislative initiatives. We sort of touched on this a little bit earlier, but what are some of the more recent ones that American Legion has had for Veterans with regards to those legislative initiatives, various laws or things like that that have gone through to promote or benefit Veterans?
Joseph Sharpe: 26:07 Well, most of the recent benefits that we have won, the American Legion played a huge part in. I guess the biggest one is the post 9/11 GI bill. We've been looking to improve education availability for Veterans for years, but back in 2004, the American Legion really wanted a new GI bill, very similar to the one we introduced back in the 40’s and that turned into the post 9/11 bill. We wanted Veterans to be able to go to school and not worry about tuition, get a stipend for housing, for their books, and that legislation was passed in the perfect time, right in the middle of the recession that we had during that time. So, I know a lot of Veterans personally couldn't find a job, but they were able to go to school and get those credentials and those degrees.
Joseph Sharpe: 27:24 That sense that once when they graduated, they will be equal footing with the civilian counterparts. The other thing was many of our homeless legislations have been passed in the lasts few years, especially the VA HUD bash program back in the early 2000s. We had about 250,000 homeless Veterans, and with the advocacy that Legion has done, we're down to about 20,000 homeless Veterans, which is huge because at that time, a lot of individuals will say, well, folks are homeless because they want to. But now we know from 250,000 to about 20,000 then that's not true. I think now our thing is preventing Veterans from becoming homeless prior to them leaving the military. And that’s one of the things we're working with DOD is to start identifying individuals who may become homeless or might have some sort of a homeless suicidal ideations, get ahold of those individuals prior to the departure from the military so we can get them into treatment so they don't have to go unemployed or harm themselves or do something that is harmful to them and their families and the communities that they are going back to.,
Scott DeLuzio: 29:12 You have these people who are fine soldiers, they're good at their job in the military. Then you take them out of that environment and they may not know quite how to manage themselves. And so, having that support from organizations like the American Legion and through these laws that have been passed, help these Veterans to keep them from becoming homeless is super valuable. I know several Veterans myself who have wound up being homeless, either living in their car or something along those lines.
Scott DeLuzio: 30:09 And knowing them as a soldier, they were great soldiers. They were squared away. Things were going well for them and everything while they were in the military. Take them away from that, and then things started to fall apart a little bit. So, knowing that there are organizations out there, I would really encourage people who might be listening to this, especially if within the next couple of months you are going to be getting out of the military, or even if you're not going to be getting out of the military for a little while now, just keep in mind that there are organizations out there that are going to help you if you need it when you get out.
Scott DeLuzio: 30:57 It should not be a pride thing that you don't ask for help, if you need it. And the alternative is you're living on the streets. Reach out and ask for that help, go to these organizations like the American Legion and ask for the assistance so that you can be a productive member of that society instead of living on the streets and struggling to figure out how to make it in the world, after the military.
Scott DeLuzio: 31:34 Joseph, is there anything else that you'd like to tell us about the American Legion? Any other things that maybe we haven't covered that people might want to know about that might open up their eyes to different things that maybe the American Legion is doing that they might be able to help out with or benefit from, things like that?
Joseph Sharpe: Well, one of the things that American Legion really wants to emphasize to those that are still on active duty is to really do what you can to reach out to us because it's really important to know exactly where you want to go once you leave the military. I know that a lot of individuals want to go home.
Joseph Sharpe: 32:39 Also look around at what type of veteran programs are in your community. Look at the housing market, look at the quality of education, look at the quality of a hospital care, and know your veteran benefits. And look at those States that also have federal benefits because you're going to make out economically if you go to Texas. Texas has excellent programs for Veterans as they leave the military. Certain areas are a quality health care at those VA hospitals, great educational institutions and just add up all your benefits and really look at that. And, when the individual decides that they want to go to a four-year school, look for the best quality school in your area. Legion feels that many Veterans may not think that they are entitled to a quality school.
Joseph Sharpe: 34:04 They may decide to go to one of these so-called schools, online requirements are not that difficult to get into this institution but realize that we are better than that. We do not have to go to a lesser school if we want to go to law school. Look for the best law school in your state that you are going back to. If you are getting your licensing/certification, the same thing, look at those schools that have the best programs and have that particular course, look at the graduation rates, their employment rates, and just look for the best quality school, best quality area that you can go to.
Scott DeLuzio: 35:08 I think that is great advice. Do not sell yourself short. You have some great experience, the discipline that you have learned in the military is going to help you in your education as you go forward. I think that is some solid advice that you had for these people who are getting out and looking for that next step. One last thing before we wrap up here, where can people go to find out more information about the American Legion?
Joseph Sharpe: Legion.org
Scott DeLuzio: I'll have a link to that in the show notes and some of your social media pages as well just to make sure that anyone who is looking for that type of information, they have all of it easily accessible.
Scott DeLuzio: 36:06 I am sure you can Google it and find more information about that as well if you are up for that. So, thank you again for joining me today. This information is great and I think it will help a lot of Veterans who are in that transition period, who are looking for that sense of belonging, a sense of purpose and things like that. So, thank you again, Joseph, for your time and for being on the show to share that with the listeners.
Joseph Sharpe: Thank you for having me.
Scott DeLuzio: 36:48 Thanks for listening to the Drive On Podcast. If you want to check out more episodes or learn more about the show, you can visit our website, DriveOnPodcast.com, we are on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at DriveOnPodcast.
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