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American Legion commander visits Waynesboro

March 07, 2001

American Legion commander visits Waynesboro



By RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer, Waynesboro


Ray G. Smith, a North Carolinian who is the national commander of the American Legion, visited Waynesboro's Joe Stickell Post No. 15 Tuesday as part of his 50-state national tour.

Smith was accompanied by Terry D. Lewis, state commander of the 820 American Legion posts spread across Pennsylvania.

An Air Force veteran of the Korean War, Smith, 67, spoke to local members and dignitaries at a banquet in his honor.

He said in a late afternoon press conference that he will visit Legion posts in all 50 states during his year-long tenure as the veterans' organization's top brass.

Smith's Pennsylvania tour will include stops at six or seven local posts. He has already visited posts in West Virginia and will add Maryland to his itinerary next week.

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He is often on the road 15 to 20 days at a time, he said. His wife, Helen, joins him occasionally on his tours.

William D. Sowers, vice commander of Legion posts in central Pennsylvania, picked Waynesboro for a stop on Smith's tour.

"This post always does a fine job," Sowers said.

Smith said the Legion, with 2.8 million regular members, is the biggest veterans' organization in the country and a powerful lobby for veterans' affairs.

He said the Legion is pushing Congress to raise military pay this year.

"It's getting harder to find volunteers for the military because of the low pay." he said. "When I was in, most people were single. Today, most are married with children. More than 6,000 people in the military are on food stamps."

The Legion is open for membership to any war veteran. It was organized in 1918 following World War I and, Smith added, has always been open to female members. "Women got the vote in the Legion before they got to vote for president," he said.

Smith said the Legion's membership is holding steady despite the dwindling ranks of World War II veterans. New members from later conflicts - including Vietnam, the Gulf War, and Bosnia - are replacing members who have died.

Smith advocates several Legion causes as he makes his way across America, especially the Legion's Child Welfare Foundation, which has raised $5 million in grants for organizations that benefit children, and the National Emergency Fund for members who suffer in natural disasters.

Smith said he opposes the Army's decision to make the black beret the official headgear for all soldiers. Black berets were the official headgear for the Rangers, an elite combat unit established in World War II. Smith said the Rangers earned the right to wear the black beret through their combat experiences.

"You can't build morale by taking something that somebody earned, then just give to somebody else," he said.

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