Most of the larger veterans services organizations in the U.S. have a national ladies auxiliary. Membership consists of wives, sisters, mothers, daughters and granddaughters of veterans. The leaders of the auxiliaries are called "presidents" as opposed to their parent organization counterparts, whose leaders are known as "commanders." Each president and commander is elected for a term of one year, and the two tour the nation and go overseas as well, sometimes as a team but more commonly on separate schedules.
At the American Legion, Kris Nelson is the current national auxiliary president, leading her female cadre and generally providing support for the parent organization and for the families of those who are serving on active duty. She has long been involved with the auxiliary, before and after she retired as director of human resources investing 37 years of employment with Minnesota's Consolidated Phone Company. Not content with serving only veterans, she also volunteers with other organizations in her home state.
Nelson recently came to Nevada to visit several Legion posts and tour VA facilities and the veterans home in Boulder City. She said her No. 1 goal as president is to "make the ladies auxiliary so appealing that more women will want to join and our membership will grow even stronger." Nelson said she feels that younger women are not joining in the kinds of numbers she would like because "they don't like to go to meetings. So we're looking at ways that we can have service projects that young people can accomplish."
She knows that today's youths are computer-savvy, living fast-paced lives. "Rather than going to meetings, they can log on" in the digital world and provide help in any number of ways. "They can do a service project and log in their hours online."
She gave an example of one type of service -- helping with their local veterans stand-downs. In Las Vegas, there are at least two such annual events where service providers from the VA, to shelters, to medical personnel, to charities and other organizations, provide no-cost help to homeless veterans. The stand-downs typically run one or two days each and are staffed entirely by volunteers. Using auxiliary members to assist as volunteers would be one way for younger women to get involved without having to attend regular monthly meetings, Nelson said.
Nelson wears a pin on her jacket with a photo of her husband taken when he was serving in the military during the Vietnam era. The pin reads "Honor their service." She uses it as a recruiting tool. "People ask me what it is," and that gives her an opening to recruit new members.
"It's a slow process," she said. "I'd like to get to a million members this year. We're up to 850,000 right now."
She notes that although the country is still at war, "I don't think that the average American realizes that. And I don't think that they know that our auxiliary's purpose is to support the families of the military while their husbands are at war." And while her mission is to sign up more members and she acknowledges that "membership is our life's blood," her overall goal is to help military families, irrespective of membership. "You don't have to be an auxiliary member to serve the families of the military," she points out with patriotic emotion. "It just takes as little as one hour from one person to make life a little easier for a veteran," she told a gathering at Post 8 of the Legion on Veterans Memorial Drive in Las Vegas.
Nelson also has a goal of increased public relations for the Legion and its work. Of an overseas tour to the Far East she said, "What shocked me the most was that foreign governments knew what the American Legion was and what the auxiliary was (but) ... when we visited the American military bases in Taiwan and Okinawa and Korea, the military had no idea what we do."
She will continue to visit military bases, and she encourages all members to do so when possible in their local areas and strive to involve the military in helping the Legion in its work when practical. The more those in the military know what the Legion does, the stronger the chances are that veterans will become members and more women will join the auxiliary.
Continuing on that theme, she said, "Through mission delivery, the American Legion Auxiliary will become so appealing to people who care about veterans that our membership will increase." She calls it a "wildly external goal," or a WIG. She believes in reaching out to the community and encouraging all those who care about veterans to join in helping them and their families. The auxiliary has been working to simplify its programs and to have fewer objectives so that members can focus more clearly on programs that have been in place and are working. Nelson and her organization have combined their overall mission into five sections that are briefly encapsulated here:
n Membership development: auxiliary emergency fund, leadership, public relations, long-range planning, auxiliary foundation.
n Veteran/military support and advocacy: Legislative, national security, veterans poppy sales, veterans affairs and rehabilitation.
n Organizational support: Constitution and bylaws, finance, past presidents parley, parliamentarian, national historian.
n Family Support Programs: Americanism, education, community service.
n Youth Development: Children and youth, child welfare, juniors, Girls State program.
While each of the above sections is important, it should be noted that Girls State (and a similar Boys State for the main organization) are premier programs for teaching how government works while developing leadership skills and appreciation for the rights of citizens. Participants run for office, learn public speaking, create and enforce laws and actively take part in creating and running a working government in a summer program. There are specific requirements to apply for the programs. For example, students must have completed their junior year in high school and have at least one semester of high school remaining to be eligible. For more information on Girls State, email email@example.com. For Boys State, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Nelson can be reached at email@example.com.
While many readers may agree that the power of women should not be underestimated, that sentiment seems especially true when it comes to their caring for veterans and their families.
Journalist and author Chuck N. Baker is an Army veteran of the Vietnam War and a recipient of the Purple Heart. He is the managing editor of Nevada's Veterans Reporter newspaper and the host of the "Veterans Reporter Radio Show" on KLAV (1230 AM) from 8-9 p.m. Thursdays and the "Veterans Reporter News" at 2:30 a.m. Fridays on VEGAStv KTUD-Cable14.)