They came in dress suits pinned with medals and faded shirts from wars old and new for Friday’s opening of the American Legion 96th National Convention.
Crowds wearing garrison caps filled the Charlotte Convention Center where a town hall meeting focused on veterans issues and color guards marched in competition. One large room turned into a mini-shopping mall offered everything from costume jewelry and books on warfare, to handbags and T-shirts emblazoned with messages such as “Agent Orange: the friendly fire that keeps on burning.”
More than 9,000 people are expected at the convention that runs through Thursday.
Among them was World War II veteran Al Paviglianti of Canastota, N.Y., who shared memories of the Marine landing on Iwo Jima in 1945.
“From the water the island looked peaceful and calm,” recalled Paviglianti, a retired engineer with IBM. “But it was like hell when we got there.”
He witnessed the iconic flag raising on the Japanese-held Pacific island and had a copy of the image in his room at a Charlotte hotel.
A member of the American Legion for 69 years, Paviglianti looked forward to seeing old friends at the convention.
“Some aren’t here anymore,” he said.
The American Legion’s national commander, Daniel Dellinger, said President Barack Obama had been invited to the convention “and we’re hoping he’ll come.”
Elected at last year’s national convention in Houston, Dellinger, 65, only has a few more days left as commander of the nation’s largest veteran’s organization. A new commander will be elected next week.
Dellinger looked back over a year that witnessed a major scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Dellinger called for the resignation of VA secretary Eric Shinseki over reports of lengthy patient waiting times at many VA hospitals and clinics, and falsified appointment records. There were also allegations that dozens of veterans died waiting for health care.
Describing Shinseki as “a great patriot” and “war hero,” Dellinger had hoped the secretary would change things at the VA, but, he said, “it just didn’t happen.”
Dellinger recalled a meeting on the issues with Obama and Shinseki.
“He (Shinseki) said he was jumping on things,” Dellinger said. “But it didn’t seem like things had improved.”
Dellinger said he was “encouraged” that former Proctor & Gamble chief executive Robert McDonald had taken over the helm of the sprawling VA.
As the largest health care agency in the country, the VA has 23 regions that Dellinger described as “little fiefdoms.”
“There’s no standardized set of rules,” he said. “It needs to be restructured.”
With McDonald’s 30 years of experience at Proctor & Gamble “we’re very hopeful he’ll be able to change that culture,” Dellinger said.
McDonald will address the convention Tuesday afternoon.
Dellinger said the American Legion continues to be an advocate and watchdog for the country’s veteran population that totals between 22 million and 23 million.
Health care and national defense issues are top priorities along with looking after the 1.2 million men and women now in the military who will be coming off active duty in the next four years.
The convention will feature job fairs and entrepreneur sessions. Another town hall meeting will be held Monday beginning at 7 p.m. It will give veterans the chance to discuss their problems.
During Dellinger’s tenure as national commander, he’s visited 48 of 50 states and nine countries, going to such venues as legion posts and veterans’ hospitals.
Dellinger rode a motorcycle in the legion’s 1,300-mile charity ride from Indianapolis to the Charlotte area, raising $420,000 for the children of fallen U.S. servicemembers.
En route, Dellinger said he met an ex-POW from the Vietnam War “who had issues.”
Dellinger got the man’s name and passed it on to legion contacts in North Carolina in an effort to get him help.
The American Legion is dedicated to helping all veterans and “they don’t have to be a member,” Dellinger said.
On Friday, Bret Watson, 52, commander of American Legion Post 163 in Weatherford, Texas, said the biggest issue there is homeless veterans.
“You see them on the streets,” he said. “Mainly Vietnam vets, old, with illnesses. They have a tough time. They can’t keep a job, some of them. They’re pretty much everywhere.”
At the convention, Watson hoped to picked up ideas about dealing with the problem “to take back to Texas.”
Marine Corps veteran Dale Moss, 66, of Columbia came to convention mostly for the camaraderie.
During one of two Vietnam tours, he’d been at the Marine garrison at Khe Sahn during the 1968 battle that was one of the war’s longest and bloodiest.
After the war, Moss said he’d gone into the roofing business because “I didn’t have to work with other people. I didn’t deal well with civilians. I was battling some real problems.”
Moss didn’t come to the convention to deal with national issues.
“I try not to have issues,” he said. “I’ve got enough of my own. I want to be here with veterans. They are my brothers.”