Cmdr. Dan Dellinger of Vienna, Va., visited the Horace Orr Post 29 of The American Legion in Marietta on Friday afternoon on his tour across the state.
Since being elected the national commander in August, 330 days of the next year will be spent traveling the world, visiting troops and veterans, he said.
He sat down with more than 160 veterans for a lunch of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans.
Flanked by members of The Legion Riders, state and local police cars, Dellinger arrived at the post just past 11 a.m. and was met by a jam-packed parking lot, filled with cars bearing license plates from counties across the state.
“Thank you for what you do for your communities, your countries and your veterans,” Dellinger told the crowd, once inside the post.
Horace Orr Post 29, the second-largest Legion post in Georgia, exemplifies what it means to be in The American Legion, he said, because it was a family of veterans who supported each other.
Not all posts across the country had the same mentality, sponsoring sports teams and participating in community events. He said Georgia was exceptional with its active veteran communities.
“We are the fabric. We are what holds America together today,” he said.
More attention needed on health care
Dellinger believes the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs needs to pay more attention to returned service members across the country, spending more money on veterans’ health care.
“The fed believes ‘Give ’em pills and put them in the corner.’ We do not believe this. We’ve been going around the country and going around the world and making sure our veterans are getting taken care of,” he said.
Dellinger called on American Legion members to contact their lawmakers and urge them to spend funds on veterans before they are spent on other things. People who serve their country ought to be served by their country upon their return, he said.
“It isn’t the cost of the bullets, the planes or the trucks. It’s the cost of their care 50 years after their service. … We have to make sure our veterans are getting the best care possible. Veterans shouldn’t be dying due to neglect,” he said.
American Legion posts, while they supported communities across the country in sponsoring sports teams and providing scholarships to students, can’t do it all, he said.
Still, Dellinger said the future for veterans looks bleak. Without membership and support from more veterans across the country, there is little hope they will receive better treatment, he said.
“Unfortunately, in D.C., politics have replaced patriotism,” he said.
We need more help, local veterans say
Local veterans at Friday’s event felt they had been ignored by the federal government.
“He’s right. There is a misallocation of resources, and a lack of prioritizing,” said Roy Lantz, a member of Post 29 and chairman of the post’s high-school oratorical contest.
Lantz repeated a point Dellinger had made about the federal government recently spending more than $3 million to refurbish Arlington National Cemetery, which he believes should have been spent on paying the medical bills for veterans.
Veterans used to be treated with more respect, and were made a priority by the government, he said.
“Let’s put the veterans in America back in the position they should be,” Lantz said.
State Public Service Commissioner Stan Wise agreed. After his father, who served in the Air Force, returned from service, he was shown much more respect.
“When they take their uniforms off, that’s where the duty (of the government) begins,” Wise said.
But newer veterans who serve in the Middle East suffer differently than those from older wars, said Kathleen Kennedy, the historian of the Women’s Auxiliary at Post 29.
“Many veterans are dying of suicide now,” she said.
Kennedy said young veterans are often at a loss as to where to seek help when needed once they return, for mental and physical issues.
“Because we are young, we are asked to sit down and shut up,” said 36-year-old Chris Canady, who served in the Army in Iraq in 2006-2007.
A fellow veteran, Nathan Blair, an Army veteran who fought in Desert Storm, said he felt he was discouraged by the government to utilize VA services.
“That mentality ‘This is the way we’ve always done it’ needs to change,” Blair said.
Harold Watkins, the commander at Post 160 in Smyrna, said he has seen many of his members, old and young, struggle with getting their benefits.
“I’ve got over 800 vets in my post, and I’d say, out of 800, probably 80 to 100 are the only ones who utilize VA services,” Watkins said.
It is very difficult to get through the VA’s bureaucracy for filing claims and getting support, he added.
“It’s a tough road,” Watkins said.
Reggie Stout, the judge advocate for Post 29, said he had to bring in extra chairs and tables to fit the extra people who showed up.
“This was way more than expected,” he said of Friday’s crowd.