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Natl. American Legion commander taking on slew of new challenges

James Koutz, the American Legion’s national commander, addresses an audience Thursday during a noon meeting at the Willmar American Legion. Tribune photo by Ron Adams2 / 2

WILLMAR — Raising funds to help wounded soldiers, working to bring home the remains of those missing in action in Vietnam, and taking on the issue of why female veterans aren’t accessing Veterans Affairs health care.

And all the while, he was also working to promote membership in the American Legion.

American Legion National Commander James Koutz spoke to all of the topics during an address to more than 100 veterans at noon Thursday at the American Legion in Willmar, part of a four-day swing through Minnesota.

Koutz, of Boonville, Ind., is seeking to raise $500,000 for the Legion’s Operation Comfort Warriors. It provides comfort goods — everything from clothing to electronics — to wounded soldiers as they recover.

Many of today’s wounded veterans face lengthy periods of rehabilitation. Koutz told his audience that more than 20 percent of our military forces are returning with post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injuries. Due to advances in medical care, more soldiers are surviving after being wounded than in previous wars.

Many female veterans are returning with no intentions of using health care offered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. A survey of female veterans found that less than 25 percent said they would use VA care, Koutz said.

The Legion has created a women’s veteran coordinator position in each of its 55 departments across the country, and charged them with identifying why female veterans are shunning VA care. Koutz said they intend to bring their findings — and recommendations for addressing them — to Congress this October.

Koutz, a Vietnam War veteran, is returning to Vietnam and Laos in June to inspect two newly opened areas where searchers will look for the remains of Americans missing in action. He urged his audience to lobby their elected officials to continue funding this work.

He also expressed his displeasure with outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s announcement that a 1 percent increase in pay for servicemen and women in 2014 was sufficient. Koutz called it a pay cut since it is below the increase in the cost of living.

If military pay is held at 1 percent, Koutz said no federal employee should receive a higher pay increase.

He also expressed his concerns about a joint announcement by Panetta and Eric Shinseki, secretary of Veterans Affairs, to scrap the current plans for a joint electronic medical records system. Koutz said roughly $1 billion had been invested for an electronic system to exchange records between the Department of Defense and VA.

“They’re saying they have a new plan. Why spend $1 billion on a plan just about done, and decide not to do it?’’ said Koutz.

He also urged Legion members to work to recruit new members and work toward a goal of 3.3 million for the organization’s 100th anniversary in 2019. He asked local members to pay the memberships and “adopt’’ veterans in nursing homes and VA hospitals who lack the ability to pay.

Asked after his presentation about the difficulties of recruiting young veterans to the Legion, he noted that it is more challenging due to the nature of today’s returning soldiers. Many are members of the National Guard, left jobs to serve and now return looking for new jobs while meeting family needs as parents, he said.   

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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