Legion state commander visits Hancock

HANCOCK — As the Michigan American Legion’s first post-Vietnam commander, Brett Holt has heard the complaints from members that younger veterans aren’t interested in joining.

But Holt thinks it has less to do with age and more with how they’re recruited. He mimicked the typical pitch, a verbal all-caps assault with no pauses for breath or reason: “HEY I SAW A MARINE CORPS STICKER ON THE BACK OF YOUR TRUCK BELONG TO THE AMERICAN LEGION HOW COME WANNA JOIN MY POST?”

Instead, Holt proposed selling potential members on the organization’s merits, and its history. The Veterans Administration was proposed by Legion members, he said. A national Legion commander was the one who sketched out the idea of the GI Bill. Legion members also transported a senator from Georgia who cast the deciding vote for the bill.

“The reason you went to school is because of the American Legion,” he said. “That’s who we are. That’s what we do. That’s how you sell membership.”

Holt and the other members of the state American Legion delegation visited Hancock’s Post 186 Wednesday night during its winter tour of the Upper Peninsula.

Holt directed members to the Legion’s national website, which hosts a two-hour basic training course which teaches the history and programs and Legion.

“If you don’t know the stories, if you don’t know why we do what we do, it’s hard to recruit,” he said.

Holt said next month, he would also go to Washington to lobby for a Veterans Administration loan forgiveness program, which he said has been underutilized. The program allows the VA to pay off the student loan debt of doctors who spend five years at rural VA hospitals such as Iron Mountain’s. Otherwise, he said, it can be difficult to recruit top talent for rural hospitals.

“I promise you, when I am in DC, I’m going to push very hard to champion for that cause for you, because it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

During their one-year term, each state commander picks a project to tackle. Holt’s is the Michigan Legion Foundation, a 501(c)3 bundling several Legion projects. The 501(c)3 status made it easier to get grants from large corporations, who could write off the donations in one year, instead of over several, as was the case with the 501(c)19.

The foundation includes programs such as the Patriot Fund, which provides funds to veterans for expenses such as car repair or fixing hot water heaters. Another is the Wounded Returning Warrior program, which assists injured veterans and those coming back from active deployment.

“Those of you that have ever deployed on active duty know that after you’ve been gone nine months, 12 months, and you return home, especially if you’re married, sometimes it’s a little difficult to flip the switch and not be chief anymore and be husband,” Holt said.

Post 186 Commander Dan Watrous said though attendance was lower than he liked, it’s good for the post to get a visit from the state delegation.

“I hadn’t really talked to the state commander, but he’s a nice person to talk to,” he said. “They’re good people, they mean well, and the Legion means well. We’re for veterans – that’s our main goal. And we give to the community.”