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American Legion Elects First Female Leader In Its 98-Year History


The American Legion, the nation's largest veterans group, is wrapping up a big week and not just because President Trump was the keynote speaker for its annual conference. For the first time in the organization's 98-year history, a woman will serve as its leader. Legionnaires elected Denise Rohan as national commander yesterday. Commander Rohan joins us on the line now from Reno, Nev. Thanks for being with us and congratulations.

DENISE ROHAN: Oh, thank you. And good morning to everybody. It is such an exciting time here in Reno.

CHANG: Well, now, having women in leadership isn't new for the American Legion but having a woman serve in the Legion's top spot is, right? I mean, you're the first...


CHANG: ...Since the Legion's founding in 1919. What does that milestone mean for you?

ROHAN: Holy smokes, it is pretty exciting. We have 2 million members and to be selected as the one, male or female, is such an honor. I really look forward to serving this year. My theme for the coming year is family first. And it's not just the American Legion family, which involves the Legion, the Auxilary, our Sons of the American Legion and our American Legion Riders. My concern is also with our veterans and their families, our military personnel and their families.

And when really - when you look at the mission of the American Legion and our four pillars of what we stand for, we're really taking care of our whole nation's families. And I think being a female and being a mom, a grandma, I see the need across this nation to make sure that the youths of our country are taken care of. And we have Americanism programs and we have youth champions across this nation. And it really gives us hope that - there is great hope for the future.

And being part of this organization and the American Legion family just makes me so proud.

CHANG: I do want to get to what President Trump said to your conference. But first I'm curious, what's your view on his directive to ban transgender service members? I mean, the Pentagon said yesterday that a directive is now imminent.

ROHAN: (Laughter) As you started this whole conversation, the American Legion was founded back in 1919. And we've always believed that a veteran's a veteran. And one of our four pillars of the American Legion is about national security and making sure that we have a strong national defense. So the American Legion is just looking to make sure that those who are serving are qualified to serve and if they're disqualified for any reason at all, that it would be based solely upon - it's a proven adverse effect of their readiness and nothing else.

We believe that our military personnel and our leaders in the military are the better ones to judge who's eligible to serve. It's just really based on a person's qualifications.

CHANG: I want to play something for you, something President Trump said in his keynote speech to the American Legion this week.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I promised you that I would make it my priority to fix the broken VA and deliver our veterans the care they so richly deserve.

CHANG: So one measure he signed this month is meant to give veterans more access to care at private hospitals. He's talked a lot about the problems that vets have had at the VA hospital system.

ROHAN: Right.

CHANG: But you have defended VA hospitals as better care providers than many private hospitals. What are your thoughts on the president's move here?

ROHAN: Well, we - the American Legion is 100 percent opposed to privatization of the VA health care system. But we do have veterans - and I'm from Wisconsin. And we have veterans in rural areas across this nation who also have issues getting into VA hospitals because of their locations. So with it said that we're 100 percent opposed to privatization, we do need to make sure that our community veterans can get care in their community as well and they don't have to drive great distances to get there.

CHANG: All right. That's National Commander Denise Rohan, the newly elected leader of the American Legion. Thanks for joining us and congratulations again.

ROHAN: You bet. Thank you for having me. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.