More than 9,000 expected in Charlotte for 96th American Legion convention

At the end of World War I, U.S. soldiers met in Paris to form an organization of veterans called the American Legion.

The legion, which opens its national convention in Charlotte on Friday, has fought for veterans’ rights ever since. This year, the organization’s national commander, Daniel Dellinger, called for the resignation of the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, after a scandal over lengthy patient waiting times at many VA hospitals and clinics and about falsified appointment records.

The new VA secretary, Robert McDonald, will address the convention, which will bring about 9,000 legion members and their families members to Charlotte.

The blue-capped legionnaires include veterans of World War II through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They’re expected to contribute between $15 million and $20 million to Charlotte’s economy through shopping, dining and tourism.

Laura Hill White, director of communications with the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, said the American Legion convention “continues the momentum of a really fantastic summer when hotel occupancy has never been better.”

“It’s a really prestigious piece of business to work with them again,” she said of the legionnaires. “We were eager to get them back.”

Legionnaires and families will actually be attending three conventions – the American Legion convention, the American Legion Auxiliary convention and the Sons of the American Legion convention.

On Sunday, there’s a parade in uptown with marching units, bands and military vehicles. And for the first time at a legion national convention the newly formed Veterans Crisis Command Center will be available to help veterans and family members affected by delays in medical care and benefits claims processing from the VA.

The convention will also feature a small-business workshop and Veterans Job Fair along with a town hall meeting to discuss veterans’ issues. Sponsored by the Legion and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the fair is designed to connect veterans with employers who are looking to interview candidates, some of whom will be hired on the spot.

The general sessions, not open to the public, are on Tuesday beginning with an opening ceremony hosted by TV personality Montel Williams. Also on Tuesday, 90 employers are taking part in a Hiring Our Heroes career fair.

Before the convention ends on Thursday, committees will come up with about 240 resolutions that will lead the organization’s lobbying efforts in Washington and in state legislatures.

As the nation’s largest organization of wartime veterans, the American Legion has a “strong voice in Washington,” said executive director Jeffery Brown.

“We don’t do a lot of tooting our own horn,” he said. “But the legion is very vibrant.”

Chartered by Congress in 1919, the American Legion came into being at a time when there was no federal department for veterans’ affairs.

Brown said U.S. soldiers who’d fought in Europe not only remembered dough boys who’d died in battle, but the wounded headed home and families with orphans.

“They knew they’d need help,” he said. “And they knew they’d have to look out for each other.”

The legion reached its peak membership of 3.3 million after World War II.

The numbers declined over the years, but Brown said things are picking up.

Today, the Indianapolis-based organization has 2.4 million members – men and women – in nearly 14,000 posts worldwide.

“We had over 200,000 new members last year,” said Brown, pointing out the legion was founded on the four pillars of strong national security, veterans affairs, Americanism and youth programs.

Among the youth programs is legion baseball, where state and regional competition ends in a World Series. The 2014 World Series wrapped up Tuesday in Shelby.

Meanwhile, the focus is on Charlotte, where the new Veterans Crisis Command Center will be open from noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday in rooms 204 and 205 in the Ballroom Level of the Charlotte Convention Center.

The American Legion is sending a team of experts who will set up the Command Center at the Convention Center. Members of the legion’s national staff, along with local legionnaires, VA staff and volunteers from other organizations will be on hand to help veterans and families.

Brown is glad the legion is back in the Queen City.

“We love Charlotte,” he said. “Last time, in 2002, the Southern hospitality didn’t go unnoticed. The city works out well for us – they do things right. It’s a place we like to come to.”