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American Legion commander candidate: 'We need everybody involved'

Legion commander candidate.jpg
Bill Oxford, candidate for national American Legion commander, chats with Bob Krause and Leon Hiltner following Oxford’s speech Friday night in Grand Forks. (Wren Murphy/Grand Forks Herald)

Bill Oxford, the leading candidate for national commander of the American Legion, is urging the organization's members to up their recruiting efforts so they can continue serving their communities.

“Membership folks do great work,” Oxford said. “But we need everybody involved.”

Oxford spoke at the banquet at the American Legion department meeting Friday evening at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks. Legionnaires from across the state discussed general business, but they also met up with new and old friends.

It is typical for leading candidates for national commander or the national commander to come to department conventions in each state to meet Legionnaires from across the country, according to George Petermann, the North Dakota 8th District commander.

Oxford, a North Carolinian who served in the military for 34 years, praised the Legion’s service programs, including Legion baseball, Boys’ and Girls’ State and the annual oratorical competition on the Constitution, as well as the Legion's legislative efforts. The Legion participates in other service events, with a particular focus on supporting the veteran community.

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“The most important part of the Legion is the cement, the concrete -- the people -- who keep the foundation together,” Oxford said. “You need to be extremely proud of yourselves.”

However, he is concerned about the Legion’s slumping membership. The Legion has lost an average of 80,000 members a year due to death or membership non-renewal.

“We’ve got two million Legionnaires (nationwide) to celebrate our 100th anniversary,” Oxford said. “We’ve got to be asking, who’s going to fill our shoes?”

Legislative actions, such as passing the pending LEGION Act, would help boost membership numbers. The act would open up membership to all military members who served after World War II by having Congress recognize that the military has faced near-constant combat since the 1940s. But, Oxford said, increasing membership is not the main point of the legislation.

“We wanted to be able to recognize vets who served during these gap periods and for family members to see the value of their loved ones’ service,” Oxford said.

Oxford wants all Legionnaires to encourage an eligible veteran they know to join the Legion. Oxford said the thing he values personally about the Legion is the friendship, but he also noted that membership to the Legion is more about serving others than oneself. Other Legion members seemed to agree.

“In many ways, it’s not about what it has done for us but what it has enabled us to do for others,” said Todd Otto, a member of the Legion from Bismarck.

Art Wanner has served in the Legion’s honor guard for 15 years and attended about 45 veterans’ funerals last year to conduct military funeral honors. Like Otto and Oxford, he values the service opportunities membership has enabled him to take part in.

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“It’s the best part-time job I’ve ever had. It doesn’t pay very well but the benefits are great,” Wanner said. “The most rewarding part is meeting families and helping them understand the significance of what they’ve gone through.”

While Oxford did discuss some problems facing the organization, he appreciates the organization and what it has done for others.

“It’s not about who we are. It’s about what we do,” Oxford said. “It’s just a tremendous honor for me to be considered for the position and represent Legionnaires from all over the country."

The department convention will run through Sunday and involve general business meetings, officer elections and a memorial service.

The American Legion was founded in 1919 to make veterans aware of what benefits were available and to take care of veterans in need. The organization is celebrating its centennial this year.

Related Topics: GOVERNMENT AND POLITICSAMERICAN LEGION
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