Meg Jones, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Published 6:00 a.m. CT Sept. 11, 2017
Madison – When Denise Rohan was elected state commander of the American Legion several years ago, her photo was hung on the walls of posts throughout Wisconsin, but the post in Marshall included an unusual sign.
Next to her picture the caption noted Rohan could have been a member of the Marshall American Legion post.
When an American Legion recruiter came to her Marshall home more than three decades ago, he asked to speak to her husband to see if he wanted to join the veterans group. Rohan had served two years in the Army and knew she was eligible to join the American Legion, too.
A fact she pointed out to the American Legion recruiter.
“He said, ‘Well, women join the auxiliary,’ ” Rohan said.
Yes, as an Army wife, Rohan could have joined the group of women whose family members served in the armed forces during wartime. But her two years in the quartermaster corps, including time spent as an instructor, also qualified her for the Legion.
After she was elected late last month as national commander of the American Legion — the first woman in the group’s 98-year history — Rohan joked about sending another picture to the Marshall Legion post, of her clad in the red national commander’s cap.
Though women have served in the military for centuries — female veterans have been members since the American Legion was founded in Paris at the end of World War I and women have held other leadership roles in the nation’s largest veterans organization — Rohan is the first national commander.
What took so long?
“I like to joke and say they were just waiting for me,” Rohan, 61, said last week in an interview at a Madison hotel where she was staying for a few days before heading to New Hampshire, followed by Alabama and Maine.
She didn’t join the Marshall post’s auxiliary, eventually joining the American Legion in 1984 in Sun Prairie.
“In 1919 when the organization was first founded, our founding fathers understood that a veteran was a veteran and even back then women were allowed to be part of the organization. In reality, women could vote for national (American Legion) commander before they could vote for president.”
Rohan said a growing number of women are taking on leadership roles in the American Legion but becoming national commander means putting her life on hold for a year — sort of like a deployment on friendly soil — something people who are still working and raising families would find difficult.
She and her husband have rented out their Verona home because they’ll be on the road visiting all 50 states and several countries, including France, South Korea and China, which have American Legion posts. Among her duties will be the New York Veterans Day parade co-marshal with Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
Rohan plans to focus on families of military members and veterans as well as boost awareness of the American Legion. As a volunteer with Wisconsin National Guard family readiness groups through several overseas deployments, Rohan knows the priority of deploying troops is making sure their families are taken care of while they’re away.
“Ever since the war on terror, our military has deployed time and time again and our families have had to be resilient,” she said.
On Veterans Day in November, Rohan is encouraging every American Legion post in the country to open its doors and invite people in to see what Legionnaires do and learn more about their history.
The Iowa native joined the Army in 1974 right out of high school when she didn’t know what to do with her life. She wanted to be a chaplain’s assistant, but there were no openings and Rohan instead served as a stock control and accounting specialist as well as a repair parts specialist course instructor stationed at Fort Lee, Va.
When she joined the Army, the ranks of quartermasters were just opening up for women.
“I thought that was funny. What was there about supply that would have kept women out 40 years ago? Today, women are driving tanks and in combat roles. Forty years ago, women couldn’t pass out automobile parts,” she said.
Wisconsin State American Legion Commander Laurel Clewell of Appleton Post No. 38 has known Rohan for a decade.
“I always laugh because this isn’t new — women veterans have been around for a long time,” said Clewell, adding that she’s inspired by Rohan’s leadership. “She’s definitely helping us gain the respect for female veterans.”
Rohan pointed to recent legislation passed through the work of the American Legion as well as other veterans groups. That includes the Forever G.I. Bill, which removes the 15-year time limit for veterans to use their educational benefits, and a bill signed by President Donald Trump at the American Legion’s national convention in Reno, Nev., shortening the time veterans must wait to hear the outcome of their claims on health care and other benefits.
American Legion membership recently fell to under 2 million, a reflection of World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans dying and current veterans and military members not joining for various reasons.
“The legislation we just helped get passed wouldn’t have happened if we were only 1 million strong. All of the work we’re doing, the larger that number is, the better,” she said.