American Legion National Commander Denise H. Rohan spoke to McPherson area veterans about the value of keeping families first as a way to support military veterans during her stop in McPherson on Tuesday.

Rohan is the first woman to be elected to the position, but she believes the election to be an acknowledgement of the values displayed by the organization over nearly 100 years.

“Back in 1919 when our organization was founded, our forefathers understood that a veteran is a veteran, no matter their gender, race or religion. Women could vote for the national commander of the American Legion before they could even vote for the president of the United States,” Rohan said. “There’s 2 million members in this organization, so to be selected as the one national commander, male or female, is amazing. There are so many women I’ve met over the years who are so proud and excited, but there are probably more men in this organization who are saying ‘It’s about time we had a woman.’”

Rohan was elected during the 99th American Legion National Convention in Reno, Nevada this August. On her tour of Kansas, the Wisconsin resident is challenging Legionnaires to work together to continue the organization’s 98 years of service to the nation, and its veterans, military and their families. Rohan’s theme of “Family First” emphasizes the importance of supporting communities through a sense of togetherness.

“As I went through basic training, I learned that through the military, you have a family and you take care of each other like a family. As you move from post to post, you build those relationships, then once you get out of the military, that sense of wanting to help your community never leaves,” Rohan said. “The American Legion family is a bunch of veterans who are used to that sense of family and have been through similar things. This family is made up of the veterans, but also their families — the American Legion Auxiliary, the Sons of the American Legion and the Legion Riders. Together, we become that American Legion family.”

Rohan’s fundraising project is the American Legion’s Temporary Financial Assistance program and the service officer program. TFA awards cash grants to minor children of veterans who are eligible for American Legion membership. These grants help families in need meet the cost of shelter, food, utilities and health expenses, thereby keeping the child or children in a more stable environment. 

“Service officers help veterans apply for and get the benefits that they earned when they served in the military. By helping them get those benefits, it might help reestablish them into the community,” Rohan said. “Also with all the hurricanes and earthquakes and wildfires, we have a national emergency fund that collects donations for veterans in those communities.”

Born in McGregor, Iowa, Rohan lived in Elkader, Iowa, until leaving for U.S. Army basic training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, in 1974. She served on active duty as a stock control and accounting specialist and repair parts specialist course instructor at Fort Lee, Virginia, until her honorable discharge in August 1976. 

Rohan and her husband, Mike, currently live in Verona, Wisconsin, where she has served The American Legion since 1984. Prior to her transfer to Post 385 in Verona, she served as the commander of Post 333 in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, where she established a Sons of the American Legion squadron and chartered a Boy Scout troop. She has also served as the department commander of Wisconsin.

As part of the tour, Rohan hears concerns from different veterans so she can testify on the behalf of the American Legion before congress.

“The legion is a non-partisan organization and we’ve recently gotten three major bills passed because they’re working to gather and understand our veterans’ needs,” Rohan said. “When I joined this organization 30-some years ago, I joined because of all the good work we do. I’m hoping that by being the national commander, I can somehow make a difference and help these communities understand what the Legion is all about and that we really are a family.”

Contact Cheyenne Derksen Schroeder by email at cderksen@mcphersonsentinel.com or follow her on Twitter at @MacSentinel.