APR 14, 2022 • BROOKE WOHLRABE • Staff Writer
FAIRMONT– The new home of Lee C. Prentice Fairmont Legion Post 36 had a special visitor on Wednesday evening when the National Commander of The American Legion, Paul E. Dillard, came to speak on issues of importance to Minnesota veterans.
Dillard, a native Texan, has been involved in The American Legion in some capacity since 1969. He assumed the role of National Commander in September. Since then he’s been on a tour of posts across the country and said the National Commander is usually gone about 340 days of the year. Earlier this week Dillard made stops in St. Paul, Red Wing, Owatonna and Austin. Before Fairmont’s stop on Wednesday he was in Blue Earth.
A whole entourage traveled with Dillard including Department of Minnesota Commander, Tom Fernlund and National Executive Committeeman, Bill Barbknecht.
“You don’t get to be district commander without doing a few things and you don’t get to be state commander without doing something. Being National Commander, you’ve served about every office at the post level, the district, the state, the national,” said Barbknecht.
He talked about the many levels of chairman Dillard has held both at the state and national level, as well as some of the different committees Dillard has sat on, including consultant to the Insurance Committee, Children and Youth Committee and Foreign Relations Committee.
“We’re so honored and privileged that he’s taken the time to spend practically the whole week in the state of Minnesota,” said Barbknecht.
When Dillard took to the podium he said that some people ask him if he gets tired traveling so much and he admitted that he does.
“But we do it because one reason. Because you allow us to get up here and enjoy everything that you get praise for. Because you are the folks that do it. That’s the reason that we do and that we’ll push forward. Because you’re true Americans and you’re concerned about our veterans and America,” Dillard said to a healthy round of applause.
Dillard spoke of his theme, “No Veteran Left Behind,” which he also said is his agenda and something he feels the entire American Legion family should work on.
“You can pick up a paper any day and read 18, 20, 22 veterans die by suicide each day,” he said.
Dillard encouraged those present to make phone calls and “be the one to save one” by checking up on veterans. He pointed out that the last few years have been tough on everyone, especially veterans.
“The quarantine, the isolation, the loneliness, the depression. Those things set in,” Dillard said.
While there’s the No Veterans Left Behind Act, Dillard said there will also be a national Buddy Check Week, which encourages wellness check-ins with veterans, that can bring attention to the issue.
Dillard also spoke about another important bill, Honoring our PACT Act of 2021. He said the bill has passed the house and the senate is discussing it with hopes to get it passed by Memorial Day. The bill recognizes and addresses comprehensive toxic exposures for veterans.
“Those in the Gulf War and Global War on Terrorism, the ones who have been exposed to air pollution, burn pits… those guys and gals need the health care. We can’t wait like we did on Agent Orange,” Dillard said.
He said it’s important to act now and he encouraged those present to contact their senators and ask them to support the bill and any bill that will cover toxic exposure to American military.
Dillard also touched on a few other bills, including the WWII means test bill, which would exempt WWII veterans from the means test needed to receive VA healthcare services.
“We did it in 1996 for our Spanish-American War veterans and also during WWI and now it’s time that we do it for WWII– the greatest generation to ever serve this nation,” Dillard said.
He said 16 million came back home and now there’s less than 230,000. He once again encouraged people to call their senators and ask them to support the bill so that those who served in WWII can benefit from it while they’re still alive.
Another legislative issue Dillard spoke about was the need for women-friendly clinics that will offer mammograms, maternity care and child care. He said women veterans need to know about the benefits because today about 11 percent of veterans are women but by 2042, it’s expected that 20 percent of veterans will be women.
Finally, Dillard shared some about his special project, The American Legion Veterans & Children Foundation. It was actually started in 1925 and $5 million was raised that first year. Several years ago, Dillard said they realized it needed to be replenished and a goal of raising $25 million over seven years was set.
“This year, I set my goal at $2 million,” Dillard said.
On Wednesday night, several groups gave Dillard sizable checks to go toward the project. Steve Fosness, 2nd District Commander, said that on Wednesday night just over $500 was given in free will donations as well.
Fosness said he was pleased with Wednesday’s turnout, which amounted to about 100 people. He said that Post 36 moved into the new space at 300 Downtown Plaza in January and Dillard’s visit was the first big event they’ve had.
“He was going to come through southern Minnesota and because we have a new post, we lobbied to have him come here,” Fosness said.
Post 36 has been without a home since about 2015. Fosness pointed out the new home is unique as it is a veteran resource center so there’s no bar or food service but there’s a telehealth room for any veteran who doesn’t have internet or accessibility. Fosness said they can dial in to the Minneapolis VA, Sioux Falls VA or Des Moines VA.
The space will be used for meetings and the auxiliary. Fosness said it’s members first and public second so they will open it up for the community to use.