BY GABE LICHT
DELANO, MN Though he was a little colder than he is used to being in his home state of Georgia, American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett warmed right up to more than 100 people who braved blizzard conditions to welcome him to Delano American Legion Post 377 Tuesday evening.
“I see an American Legion family,” he said. “I’m going to talk to you, my family, tonight. I’m going to talk to you from my heart.”
He started his speech by expressing gratitude for different groups who were in attendance.
For the American Legion Riders, who were a part of raising $9 million for the Legacy Scholarship Fund.
“Sometimes, when nonprofits do great things, the government steals their good idea,” Barnett said. “We suddenly didn’t have as many applicants. We’re going to have to expand our pool of applicants . . . Thank you, riders.”
For the members of the Color Guard, who recognize those who have served and showing support for their families after they pass.
For Boy Scouts, which the American Legion has supported since 1919.
For Junior American Legion members and those who have attended Boys State and Girls State.
“I had the opportunity to go to Boys State,” Barnett said. “That’s not what I wanted to do in life. I had these big dreams that I was going to be a basketball player, go to the Big 10 and be an NBA player. My senior year, reality set in . . . We were 3-17 in basketball, and I was pretty dog-goned depressed.”
Despite his depression, he received an offer to play basketball for a college in Minnesota.
“It was St. John’s,” Barnett said. “It said, ‘Dear, Dale, we would love for you to attend our college. However, we do not give any athletic scholarships, and we haven’t had a winning basketball season in 20 years, but we think you’ll fit right into the program.”
When a high school counselor mentioned the military academy as an alternative, Barnett thought he was too late to apply.
“She said, ‘No, you have been to Boys State and they recognize that,’” Barnett said.
He followed her advice, which led to a long career in the military, not to mention his current one-year post.
For the Sons of the American Legion.
“They got $639,000 for the Child Welfare Foundation,” Barnett said. “That’s what our family does. We stand up for these young people. We mentor our youth. We help our veterans in need.”
On the topic of helping veterans, Barnett said he would be testifying Wednesday, Feb. 24, in front of the Veteran Affairs Committee. He said he is concerned about accountability in the wake of $400,000 in taxpayer dollars that were spent on “relocation” of two Veterans Affairs officials.
Barnett called for the resignation of the individual who had approved those relocations and subsequent price tags. Though it did not happen at first, once Congress voted unanimously to subpoena her to testify on the issue, she resigned.
“It wasn’t the first time she had done something we were concerned about,” Barnett said.
VA officials were demoted, but those demotions have since been set aside due to an irregularity in paperwork.
“We’re going to continue to fight the fight,” Barnett said. “I’m not sure we’re making progress, but I know one thing: We got their attention. They’re listening to us. It’s my solemn pledge: I will continue to fight for vets, I will continue to fight for taxpayers.”
Other topics Barnett will be testifying about include health care, meshing Department of Defense and VA records into the same system, and reporting issues.
“The VA is very interested in our reports because we try to be very, very fair and unbiased, but we try to make sure we say the truth and come up with recommendations to make it better for veterans,” Barnett said.
He also has a platform to talk about national security, and he has used the opportunity to meet with the president of Taiwan and key officials in South Korea and the Caribbean. He will also be visiting four European countries in June for the same purpose.
More than meeting dignitaries, though, Barnett enjoys getting to know veterans and seeing their sense of pride.
“I was just at a lunch meeting today and ran into a World War II veteran who had 70 years in the American Legion, and we talked about the value of membership,” Barnett said. “I met a gentleman in here just a little while ago who’s been in the organization for 65 years. There’s great loyalty and pride in this organization from our membership. It’s just an honor to be a part of it.”
Barnett expressed his appreciation to all the American Legion and American Legion Auxiliary members for being a part of the organization, and asked for their help.
“How do you help me? By being members and being advocates in your community,” Barnett said.
He said he is proud of the growth of the American Legion, with 52 of 55 departments hitting their membership goals.
While some doubt the future of the American Legion, Barnett said that doubt is misplaced.
“People say we’re a dying organization,” Barnett said. “It couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re a growing organization because our membership has value.”