Madam Commander

Denise Rohan is the first woman to be national commander of The American Legion.

She’s proud of that distinction. She knows it’s a milestone for the organization and female veterans in general. Just don’t tell her, “It’s about time!”

From Rohan’s perspective, women have always been leaders in the Legion. “If you look back, women were post commanders early on,” she says. “We’ve been in leadership positions. If we weren’t leading from the front, we were still there, helping the organization along.

“I don’t think of myself as a female Legionnaire. I want to be known as a great American Legion leader who happens to be a woman. I’ve been working hard for the Legion for more than 30 years, and am humbled it chose me to be national commander. It’s an honor.” 

Elected at the Legion’s 99th National Convention in Reno, Nev., in August, Rohan is an Army veteran and the second national commander from Wisconsin. She and her husband, Mike, belong to Mason Lindsay Post 385 in Verona, where they moved after nearly 30 years in Sun Prairie.

“They fit in right away,” says Stan Hook, post commander. “They didn’t sit back and watch things happen. They hit the ground running.”

Members have supported Rohan for a long time and are excited to see her at the top, Hook adds. “She’s very capable. She’s outgoing, friendly and can bring people together in a consensus. She’s done a lot for this post and she’ll do a lot for the national organization.” 

SECOND FAMILY Rohan grew up in Elkader, Iowa, a small town on the Turkey River. At age 5 or 6, she was waking up and leaving notes that said, “Gone fishing.” 

Her parents, Joe and Dorothy Hulbert, set a strong example for their three daughters. Both were volunteer EMTs and active in the local United Church of Christ; Joe was Elkader’s volunteer fire chief. “They served the community and taught us to serve our community too,” Rohan says. “They were supportive of whatever we wanted to do.”

She first encountered the Legion as a girl, at Memorial Day services in a Catholic cemetery near her house. She’d wait patiently to receive a spent brass shell casing from the honor guard, to use as a whistle. 

“The town always had a parade that started at the cemetery, came down the hill, went across the bridge and ended up at another cemetery on the other side of the river,” she says. “There was only one parade I remember going the other way, when they brought home the body of someone killed in Vietnam. It began at the high school and went up the hill. That memory stayed with me.”

Still, the idea of serving in the military herself didn’t occur to her until a high school friend asked Rohan and another girl to accompany her to Des Moines for an Army physical. Her friend failed, they passed, and Rohan had a choice. Unsure what she wanted to do with her life, and reluctant to ask her parents to put a third child through college, she joined under the buddy system in 1974.

For a person who struggled with homesickness, Fort McClellan, Ala., took some getting used to.

“Somehow my mother lived through me sobbing on the phone every single call for a couple of weeks,” Rohan says. “Then I started realizing that I had another family: the women in basic training with me. They had my back, they made sure I was taken care of, and we became sisters.”

At Fort Lee, Va., she completed quartermaster school and was the outstanding graduate of her class. Needing female instructors, the Army sent Rohan to more training. That’s where she met Mike, who was working as a television production specialist.

“I had to have some time in the studio,” she says, teasing him. “My roommate at the time was a runner-up for Miss West Virginia the year before she joined the Army, so here’s this beautiful blonde who probably did really good on camera because she was used to that kind of stuff. He doesn’t remember meeting me that day.”

By Mike’s recollection, they met through a mutual friend a couple of months later. He soon realized this girl had all the qualities his mother told him to seek in a woman – and more.

“She never once told me to look for someone who could shoot an M16 or crawl under barbed wire with live fire going on or run two miles with a ruck sack on her back, but that’s what I found,” he says. “Denise has all those abilities of a soldier but is also a loving wife and mother.”

They started dating, fell in love and … Mike got orders to go to Korea. About the same time, Rohan was up for re-enlistment. Wanting to stay together, they were married by a justice of the peace during one of Rohan’s morning breaks. Their reception was at a McDonald’s.

“That’s our romantic place we go every year, on May 21,” she says.

‘WOMEN ARE VETERANS TOO’ In the end, the Army couldn’t guarantee Rohan an assignment overseas, so she left the service and became an Army wife. Over the next few years, the couple lived in Korea, Texas and, finally, Wisconsin. Mike spent the first half of his career as enlisted, then became a warrant officer in the National Guard.

Meanwhile, Rohan built her own career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, starting as a program assistant in the student loans office. She eventually rose to the position of assistant bursar, managing a $120 million loan portfolio and helping to develop a computerized system to manage it all. She retired in 2012, after 29 years.

“We miss her a lot,” says Regina Derlein, who worked under Rohan as a financial specialist. “She is someone we always went to for answers. Always up on all the federal and institutional regulations. When she left, she took a wealth of knowledge.”

Rohan’s American Legion career has had a similar trajectory. She joined in 1984, when the new commander of Post 333 in Sun Prairie – a friend of Mike’s – recruited her to join so she could serve as adjutant. She laughs when she recalls an older veteran who was flustered by a woman’s presence at meetings. “He was saying something and swore, and then he took his cap off and said, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be disrespectful.’ Later he did it again and said, ‘I just don’t know how I’m going to do this.’ I told him, ‘Hey, I was in the Army too. I’ve heard those words before.’”

Where Rohan really found her spot in the Sun Prairie post was coordinating community blood drives – four a year for two decades. “Each pint of blood can help three people, and we collected hundreds at each drive,” she says. “The volunteers kept coming back, the donors kept coming back. It makes you feel like you’re making a difference.”

From there, Rohan’s reputation for hard work and willingness to serve opened door after door: post commander, district adjutant and commander, department historian (she’s a four-time winner of the National American Legion Historian Contest), department commander. On the national level, she  is a former chairman of the Veterans Employment & Education Commission, as well as the National Membership & Post Activities Committee. Along the way, she’s volunteered for dozens of smaller jobs that have cemented the Legion’s place in her community, like chartering a Boy Scout troop, organizing children’s Christmas parties and assembling troop care packages. 

None of it would have happened if Rohan was the sort to hold grudges. When the couple lived in Marshall, Wis., briefly, a member of the local American Legion came by to recruit Mike. Rohan identified herself as an eligible veteran, but the Legion recruiter told her that women join the Auxiliary only. Years later, the Marshall post realized its mistake and hung a photo of Rohan – then district commander – beneath a sign that says, “Remember, women are veterans too!” 

Today that post is one of her biggest supporters. “I promised they’d get one of my first national commander photos to put in that frame,” she says.

‘WE CAN DO THAT’ Rohan’s name is known in more than just Legion circles. At the Wisconsin Army National Guard Armory in Madison, she and her husband are Aunt Denise and Uncle Mike. Since 2006, they’ve frequented drill weekends so often that young servicemembers sometimes assume they’re part of their unit. 

Facing a rough situation with a soldier fresh off deployment, and needing resources fast, Staff Sgt. Dan Killam was told to talk to the Rohans at the Legion. That call led to an unbelievable amount of care for troops and their families, he says.

When soldiers needed satellite phone minutes to call home after a battle, the Wisconsin Legion Family raised $50,000. At a spur run for the 105th Cavalry, Legionnaires fed nearly 500 people in 20 minutes. At various dine-outs, they’ve covered the cost of dinner for re-enlisting soldiers. All these things happened because of the Rohans.

“If Denise says, ‘We can do that,’ something makes everybody say, ‘It’s going to be OK,’” Killam says. “People who pray that something works out in the end are essentially praying that Denise shows up.”

He tells a story about a soldier whose roommate killed himself in their house. He couldn’t afford to have it cleaned. Within a day, Killam received a check from a Vietnam War veteran eager to help.

“There is no program that provides for that, but there is a number in my phone,” he says. “The Rohans are the tightest safety net we’ve ever seen. I would do anything for them, and I believe they would do anything for me, if for no other reason than I am a soldier with a family.”

Whether it’s the military, the Legion or one’s relatives, Rohan believes in strengthening the bonds people share. Her theme as commander – in fact, her motto in life – is “Family First.”

She’s thought about it a lot after a particularly difficult year. While decorating a tree in her backyard, she fell off a ladder and broke both feet. Not long after, her son Nick had life-threatening complications following surgery and was in the hospital for weeks. What kept her going was prayer and encouragement from her Legion family.

It reminds Rohan why she’s devoted much of her life to the organization: camaraderie, belonging, mutual helpfulness. “Each and every Legionnaire should take time to remember why they joined in the first place, and why they continue to belong,” she says. “If we’re ready with the answers to those questions when we ask others to join, we’ll grow.”

Keeping members is just as important to Rohan. She hates hearing of people leaving the Legion because something upset them at their post or they didn’t see the point of membership. 

“That just seems really sad to me,” she says. “We’re family, and somebody left our family. We need to go after them and bring them back, even if that’s a post in the next city or other part of town.”

That’s Rohan’s message for all veterans, women and men. “If you go into a Legion post and you don’t feel like it’s a fit, go to another post and find the fit. Give us another chance. There’s a family out there for you someplace.” 

Matt Grills is managing editor of The American Legion Magazine.

Source: Legion News

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