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MADISON — About 38 years ago, a recruiter from the American Legion came to U.S. Army veteran Denise Rohan’s door in Marshall, wanting to speak to her husband, who was also a veteran.

Rohan, who now lives in Verona with her husband, Mike, told the recruiter she was also eligible for Legion membership. But he suggested she instead look into the American Legion Auxiliary, made up of women whose relatives served in the military during wartime.

While proud to be a military wife, Rohan said, she also had every right to join the Legion. In August, Rohan, 61, became the Legion’s national commander, overseeing its more than 2 million members who advocate patriotism, mentor youth and sponsor community programs.

She is the first woman elected to the position in the Legion’s 98-year history.

The Legion was chartered in 1919 by Congress as a national veterans organization that includes all veterans who served during any period of war, regardless of race, creed or gender. Rohan said she brings a different perspective to the organization, which will help bolster its inclusivity.

“It’s always been interesting to me that women were able to vote for the national commander of the American Legion before they could vote for president,” Rohan said. The 19th Amendment allowing women the right to vote wasn’t passed until a year later.

Rohan said she’s not the only woman who felt pushed aside by the Legion — other female veterans told her they didn’t feel welcomed — but Rohan urged those women to reach out to the Legion again because they may find the organization has a different attitude.

“I represent all veterans, male and female,” Rohan said. “Everyone in basic training learns to have each other’s backs. You become brothers and sisters.”

‘Family first’

Over the two-year vetting and campaign process, Rohan ran on a family-first platform. She said it is important to her that veterans and their entire families are supported through the Legion — both emotionally and monetarily — which is why she continues to focus fundraising efforts on the Legion’s Temporary Financial Assistance program, which awards cash grants to minor children of veterans who are eligible for membership. The grants help families in need meet the cost of basic necessities and provide better home stability for families.

There are still many families of active-duty military personnel at home and overseas who could use the Legion’s help, Rohan said. The United States has been at war since the Gulf War began on Aug. 2, 1990, through the continuing War on Terror, Legion’s membership eligibility states.

Family has always been important to Rohan. It was her parents’ teachings that led her on a successful path in life, she said, both during her two years in the Army and her career at UW-Madison as assistant bursar of student loans until her retirement in 2012.

“My parents always told me I could be or do anything I wanted to do as long as I worked hard,” she said.

Campaigning was hard work for Rohan. It involved a lot of travel and new tasks at the Legion over the two years, including working as the chair of the Veterans Employment and Education Commission and consultant to the Legislative Division. Rohan said she appreciated the opportunity to gather knowledge about every aspect of the Legion.

“They gave me a job, and I did it, and I learned everything I could along the way,” Rohan said.

As part of her campaign for national commander, Rohan visited every state except Hawaii, as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. She spoke to veterans and Legionnaires everywhere she went and listened to their specific needs, which opened her eyes to the unique and diverse needs of individual veterans, Rohan said.

One of the most prominent issues in the Department of Veterans Affairs is the state of its health system. For years, the VA has battled reports of months-long wait-lists for care, insufficient staffing and deteriorating facilities.

Rohan said she sees hope for the future of veterans affairs, saying things are “slowly being corrected.” She cited the signing of the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act, which is intended to speed up disability appeals for veterans.

Rohan said she hopes the Legion will reach out more to the community to teach others about the military, its history and what it means to be a veteran. As national commander, she is asking Legion posts around the country to open their doors and host community events on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, as a way to change people’s opinion about the organization.

“A lot of people think of the American Legion as just a building down the street where old people go,” Rohan said. “By inviting the community into our post homes, they can see who we are and what we do.”

Rohan will serve one year — the term limit for national commanders — during which she will direct lobbying priorities for the Legion, promote service and fundraising and speak before congressional committees on veterans affairs.

“I represent all veterans, male and female. Everyone in basic training learns to have each other’s backs. You become brothers and sisters.” Denise Rohan

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