National Legion commander energizes the members
PRESTON — In his five months as national commander of the American Legion, Dale Barnett has met with a three-star general in South Korea to discuss security, had a half-hour, one-on-one conservation with the president of Taiwan about weapon sales and has testified before Congress about veterans affairs.
But he's also learned you can walk on water when he went ice fishing on a Twin Cities lake Monday (he caught nothing), was given a must-read copy of the book "How to Speak Minnesotan" and met with members of the Fillmore County Legion posts on Thursday.
All are part of his job, said the former Army lieutenant colonel from Fayetteville, Ga. "It's amazing the spectrum of activities you do as the national commander," he said.
Yes, he needs to work on national, and international issues, he said. But he also said part of his mission — and mission of the Legion — reaches to small posts, to the Boys and Girls Clubs to teach leadership and patriotism and to help children and youth.
Much of its 2.3 million members live in suburbs or small towns, he said. Big cities just don't seem to attract the same sense of community as smaller places, he said.
"In rural American, the American Legion has such a presence," Barnett said. (It has) people who want to be members."
When he began his talk, however, he didn't try to rally about 50 people there on national issues or decry the state of the Veterans Administration. Instead, "I think it's important to talk about what you see as a guest," Barnett said.
Behind him was a display case behind him of pictures of local people now serving.
On one wall was the list of winners of local scholarships.
He complimented the Fillmore County Journal for its two-year project to publish the stories of local veterans in the book "Boots & Badges" that debuted today.
In the back was a young man, Tom Trehus, who had gone to Boys State and was inspired to run for the Minnesota Legislature. "He must have learned some good lessons from some mighty good teachers," the commander said.
Barnett loved all that, that's what the Legion needs to do, get out that message, he said.
"We teach character, we teach service and we teach dedication," Barnett said. "Our country needs us; it needs us to unite as one."
He also applauded what he saw in the new State Veterans Cemetery on the outskirts of Preston that is now open but will have its formal dedication in spring. "What I saw was so great," he said.
Yes, as commander, he also runs into entrenched bureaucracy, problems with getting veterans benefits.
"It would be easy to be frustrated, but I'm not," he said. Legion membership is rising, and part of his job is to be a motivator, Barnett said.
His message "is a message of service, that they have values, that they can still serve America," he said. Service can be of veterans, it can be for veterans, it can be non-veterans serving the community. "We are not a closed society," he said.
One person pleased that Barnett was there was Ron Scheevel, assistant chaplain for the Preston Legion. "It was just an honor with opening our cemetery in spring," he said, referring to the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery. "It all energizes our membership."