The American Legion has named Verna Jones its new executive director, making her the first woman to lead the veterans’ organization in its nearly 100-year history.
Jones, an attorney and Army veteran who served as a personnel sergeant, stepped into her new role on Nov. 1. Legion spokesman Marty Callaghan said he believed that Jones is the organization’s first African-American executive director, but he couldn’t confirm it absolutely. Previously, she served as the director of the Legion’s veterans affairs and rehabilitation division.
“We’re still focused on the [Department of Veterans Affairs], the quality of health care, timeliness, the backlog, benefits — all the things that we’ve been focusing on, and the things that veterans need. Access to health care is huge for us,” Jones said in an interview with The Huffington Post in her new office.
Jones became the most animated when asked about sexual assault in the military, an issue that several members of the Legion, including Jones, have testified about before Congress. The organization has said the military needs to have a “zero tolerance policy” on the issue.
“To those people who may assault people, [we need to] let them know that we’re not going to stand for that, and there are some very serious consequences the first time,” said Jones. “So we’ve got to create programs, we’ve got to create awareness, and we have to be willing to say that military sexual trauma exists. Stop sweeping it under the rug and pretending it’s a small thing, because it’s not.
“There needs to be punishment,” she added. “Something punitive needs to happen. If you’re in the military and you sexually assault somebody, then you don’t need to be in the military anymore.”
Jones’ ascension is significant at an organization often seen as being composed of older men hanging out in Legion halls around the country. When asked how the Legion is trying to attract the next generation of veterans, Jones said it’s a misconception that the group doesn’t have a significant number of younger members. She pointed to the fact that many of the employees at the Legion are young veterans, and said just because some Iraq and Afghanistan veterans may not be at every event doesn’t mean they’re not involved.
“A lot of the younger members, they’re working, they have families, they have children,” said Jones. “They have to go to soccer games, football games, tutors, they’ve got kids. All kinds of stuff. … But they’re dues-paying members, they will give us their opinion about things, they love the Legion.
“But as the face of the soldier changes, the face of the veteran changes and the face of the Legion has to change,” she added.
Still, the Legion has opposed some of this change. It came out against getting rid of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the federal law that barred gay men and women from serving openly in the military. President Barack Obama signed its repeal in October 2011.
“One must ask, ‘What’s the rush?‘” said American Legion National Commander Jimmie L. Foster in December 2010. “And why should this matter of social policy take precedence over the far more critical matter of national security?”
When asked what the Legion thinks now of gays and lesbians serving in the military and how the repeal went, Callaghan jumped in and said, “As long as the Department of Defense opposed it, we did. Now that the Department of Defense is on board, that’s something that we accepted.”
Jones added that the organization is happy to have lesbian and gay service members as Legionnaires.
“Our criteria is that you must have served in the military for at least one day of wartime service and been discharged under other than dishonorable conditions,” she said. “That’s always been like that. I wouldn’t know of anybody who’s been turned away because of those things. The national headquarters would not stand for that.”
Jones joined the Legion in 2004, working as a service officer helping veteranss file for claims while attending law school. But with law degree and North Carolina bar certification in hand she did not practice law, but stayed working for the Legion.
Her move up the ranks to direct the Legion’s Washington office — making her the group’s representative to the White House, Congress, VA, Pentagon and every other federal department — was a historic event. Jones is committed to women’s issues, but said the Legion has been advocating for women veterans for some time.
In 2010, it funded a national survey of 3,012 women veterans to determine their healthcare needs and learn if they are being met. It was the first survey of its kind since the VA conducted one in 1985.
“With all of our programs, we have to make sure where there is a difference there has to be something additional [to help the veteran] because of gender-specific differences,” she said. The Legion has women’s outreach programs and women members who assist new women veterans in applying for benefits or dealing with VA healthcare.
One program is called Sister to Sister. A female Legion member wearing a pink tee-shirt will meet up with a female veteran going in for a first-time VA hospital appointment and help her through the process. They’ll get the new veterans where they need to go and if any tests are referred outside the VA, they will follow-up to make sure the results get back into VA hands in a timely manner.
“When you are a member of a particular segment, whether you’re a Vietnam veteran, a female veteran or an Iraq an Afghanistan veteran, you bring something to the experience that leads to a better understanding of what veterans need,” she said.