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First female American Legion national commander tours N.H.

  • Denise Rohan (center), the new national commander of the American Legion, and other American Legion officers listen to Scott Herrick (right), executive vice president of Swenson Granite during a tour of Swenson Granite Works in Concord on Friday. Elizabeth Frantz photos / Monitor staff

  • American Legion national commander Denise Rohan (center) listens to Sales Coordinator David Duford (right) talk at Swenson Granite Works on Friday. Elizabeth Frantz

  • Denise Rohan, the new national commander of the American Legion, visits the quarry at Swenson Granite Works in Concord on Friday, Sept. 8, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • The quarry at Swenson Granite Works in Concord is seen on Friday, Sept. 8, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Granite curbing is cut to size at Swenson Granite Works in Concord on Friday, Sept. 8, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Granite curbing is cut to size at Swenson Granite Works in Concord on Friday, Sept. 8, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Granite curbing is cut to size at Swenson Granite Works in Concord on Friday, Sept. 8, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • The quarry at Swenson Granite Works in Concord is seen on Friday, Sept. 8, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Granite curbing is cut to size at Swenson Granite Works in Concord.



Monitor Staff
Friday, September 08, 2017

The new commander of the American Legion, the veterans organization that has more than 17,000 members in New Hampshire, wants the group to do a better job connecting with communities to help overcome a decline in its enrollment, and hopes her election as the Legion’s first female commander will make that a little easier.

“Women have been in leadership positions in our organization for a really long time, but I’m hoping that as the nation sees the first female national commander, they’ll say ‘Wow’ and look again,” said Denise Rohan, who joined the Legion 33 years ago after serving in the Army’s Quartermaster Corps at the tail end of the Vietnam War and was elected national commander Aug. 24. The American Legion, open to all veterans and veteran family members, was founded in 1919; less than five percent of its current members are women.

Rohan began a three-day tour of New Hampshire on Friday with a visit to Swenson Granite Quarry – a symbolic nod to our designation as the Granite State – and continued with a whirlwind visit to dozens of Legion posts and facilities throughout the state.

She then heads to Florida, if Hurricane Irma allows it, and on to other states. She says her message will be the same everywhere: That the Legion needs to reach out if it’s going to overcome stereotypes and past practices and become accepted by modern veterans.

The American Legion’s national membership has fallen about 10 percent since 2000, to about 2 million members, while the number of operating posts has also slipped, to fewer than 14,000.

This partly reflects a general decline in participation in social organizations, including civilian groups such as the Lions, Elks and Odd Fellows, as habits and culture has changed. But the American Legion, like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, has accumulated an image stereotyped as men who spend their day sitting in their post building, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. Rohan said the group must work to overcome that stereotype.

“I am asking American Legion posts to open their post homes to the communities, so people can come in and see what we do. There is so much that the American Legion does in communities … but we don’t always let people know about it,” she said.

David Meaney of Post 34 in Plaistow, the state’s commander for the Legion, said he was reaching out beyond the heavily male contingent of Vietnam-era and older veterans.

“In our membership committee we went specifically after women veterans – because 20 percent of the military today is female, and here in New Hampshire 7.4 percent of veterans are women – and also put some Afghan, Iraq war veterans on the committee,” he said. “We need to start thinking young.”

The traditional organization of posts, often built around a food and beverage selling operation known as the canteen, may not always be best. Asked to point to a vibrant example among the roughly 110 Legion posts in New Hampshire, Meaney named Peterborough, which has signed up an extremely high percentage of local veterans even though it doesn’t have any building at all, but meets at other properties.

Under the American Legion, each post is completely independent and decides on its own organization, even its own dues.

As a reason for veterans to join, Rohan points to three pieces of federal veterans legislation recently passed, including the Veterans Appeals Modernization Act, as examples of how the group can use its heft to improve conditions.

“In this day and age, things don’t move very fast down in Washington D.C.,” she said. “Those bill being passed is because of the American Legion’s numbers, our strength – that what gets us listened to. Our goal is that (veterans) will understand, in order for us to continue to do good stuff for veterans, get those bills passed, we need those numbers.”

The American Legion is associated with conservative political stances – one of its national goals is to obtain a Constitutional amendment “to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States” – but Rohan and Meaney said the group worked hard to cooperate with legislators of both parties.

As for overcoming stereotypes, Rohan, who is 61, pointed to her own history. Decades ago an American Legion member approached her Army veteran husband to get him to join.

“When I identified myself as an eligible veteran, he said, ‘well, women join the auxiliary.’ He wasn’t used to serving side-by-side with women,” she recalled.

That has changed, Rohan said.

“I’m asking women veterans who may have had a bad experience 30, 40 years ago to give it another shot,” she said.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)