National commander speaks to needs of young veterans

by Nathan Warner
Contributing writer

National Commander of the American Legion Fang Wong rolled into Zimmerman Legion Post 560 Thursday during his tour of Minnesota to talk about the needs of young veterans.

Wong said it was crucial that older veterans help returning veterans get back to work and back to their lives. He also reaffirmed his desire to protect the defense budget from further cuts, which he said not only threaten our nation’s security but also the state of our veteran services.

Commander Wong spoke about the needs of returning veterans. Photos by Nathan Warner.

Wong was born in Canton, China, and emigrated to the United States in 1960 when he was 12 years old. He became a naturalized citizen in 1963 while attending New York City schools, where he received a scholarship from the American Legion there. This generosity gave him his life-long interest in the organization. In 1969, he volunteered for the U.S. Army and served 25 months in Vietnam, retiring from the Army in 1989 as a chief warrant officer.

Wong was elected national commander Sept. 1, 2011, in Minneapolis for a one-year term of office and has already visited deployed soldiers around the world, including in Afghanistan and South Korea.

The American Legion has deep roots in Minnesota. Its first national convention was held in Minneapolis in 1919, less than one year after the American Expeditionary Force founded it in Paris following the conclusion of World War I. Minnesota alone has nearly 560 American Legion posts with 93,000 of the 2.4 million members world-wide.

National Commander Fang Wong shook hands with veterans at American Legion Post 560 in Zimmerman.

The Legion primarily acts as a watchdog of veterans’ rights, but it also is heavily involved in communities through programs such as baseball, Boys State, Legionville School Safety Patrol School, scouting and many other projects.

Although the American Legion is the nation’s largest wartime veterans service organization, only 14 percent of all veterans who are eligible to join actually enroll. In particular, younger veterans are difficult to enlist.

“Where are all the young faces?” Wong asked the crowd of primarily Korea- and Vietnam-era veterans at the Zimmerman luncheon. He explained that this was a question he’s had to ask at many posts throughout the country. “We all know that young people are the toughest to sign up, but it’s the young vets coming home right now that need our help the most,” Wong said, adding that even if they aren’t members of the Legion, these vets need to be supported by the Legion. “When they’re coming home from service, the last thing on their to-do list is sign up with the American Legion,” he said. “Their priorities are getting jobs, going back to school and getting their families back in order. We need to help them with that. They will join the Legion in their own time.”

He added that the active duty soldiers are the lucky ones right now. “They have jobs, consistent paychecks, insulation for their families, and they’re with friends that understand what they’re going through. They can get help if they need it,” he said, stressing that discharged vets are in very painful situations right now because they’re coming home to a tough job market and are surrounded by friends and family who can’t understand the war-related difficulties they’re struggling with.

“We need to be there for them,” Wong said, “to listen and let them know they’re not alone and whatever happened during their tour of duty isn’t their fault. All of us here today know personally that what these vets are struggling with is nothing new. We need to let them know that and we need to be there for them when they need us. They need us now.”