Veterans organization

Veterans’ organization under siege for taking part in inauguration parade

On the morning of Jan. 20, as Donald Trump prepared to take the presidential oath, a few dozen national representatives from AMVETS, one of the nation’s largest veterans service organizations, stood in loose formation on a road narrow bordering the National Mall. in Washington DC At their six o’clock, a phalanx of girl scouts in Ferrari red caps shivered in the cold rain. When they turned 12, a kilt-adorned bagpipe ensemble warmed up with a playful rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Together, the three groups made up a small part of the inaugural procession, which had been abruptly interrupted just as it had begun. News of riots seeped in. “I don’t know if I should be excited or on guard,” said one woman.

AMVETS applied to participate in the inaugural parade about a month before Election Day with the intention of marching regardless of who was elected. But for a small group of determined individuals, it didn’t matter. In the weeks leading up to the parade, AMVETS received dozens of angry emails, Facebook posts and phone calls from people (members and non-members) accusing the organization’s leadership of endorse Trump. Today, days after the inauguration, AMVETS claims to be the target of vandals who have inflicted thousands of dollars in damage to the organization and personal property and raised concerns among employees about security.

AMVETS National Commander Harold Chapman in Washington DC January 20, 2016. Photo by Adam Linehan

“We’re convinced it’s because we participated in the parade,” said John Hoellwarth, an Iraq War veteran and national director of communications for AMVETS. “They react with a lot of anger and vitriol. But until we ended up with 10 of our employees with flat tires, we just took it because people have the right to say what they want. We are a veterans organization and we have defended the right to freedom of expression. We support that.

AMVETS was founded at the end of World War II with a mission to help service members reintegrate into civilian life. 70 years later, the main mission has not changed. The organization is based in Lanham, Maryland, about a 20-minute drive from DC, and also has more than 1,400 posts nationwide. The total number of members currently stands at approximately 250,000. The only requirements for Become a member is either a military ID or an honorable discharge and a small annual fee. The benefits of this membership include everything from help applying for VA benefits to help finding a job after the military. AMVETS is also very active on the Hill, where it lobbies for policy changes that benefit all service members and veterans.

Veterans' organization under siege for taking part in inauguration parade

AMVETS representatives begin their march at the inauguration parade. January 20, 2016.Adam Linehan

That’s what AMVETS is. Here’s what he’s not: partisan. The decision to participate in the inaugural parade was driven by the belief that veterans should be represented on the national stage at a pivotal time in American history. In the weeks leading up to the inauguration, the leadership of the group – a mix of veterans young and old – calculated the risk of participating in the parade and concluded that people would eventually see the wisdom in their decision to march.

“We wanted to be in the parade out of respect for the office of the commander-in-chief,” Hoellwarth said, “and also to raise awareness of veterans’ issues. It was important to us. Now, this has been misconstrued as partisan support for the president’s political party or political ideology.

I joined AMVETS during the march, hoping to tell what Trump had promised would be the biggest inaugural celebration our country had ever seen, but which I believe turned out to be a bit of a flop. As we waited for hours in the rain for the parade to resume – to make the route “safe enough for children”, as one policeman put it – it became clear that the leadership of the organization was not politically aligned. For every person in the group who looked forward to the moment when we would walk past the podium to proudly salute the new Commander-in-Chief, there was someone else making jokes about the TV-inspired approach to politics. -reality of Trump.

Veterans' organization under siege for taking part in inauguration parade

Members of the Girl Scouts of America prepare to descend for the inauguration parade in DC. January 20, 2016Photo by Adam Linehan

One member, an army veteran, told me that his teenage daughter was planning to participate in the women’s march the next day. Although he was a Trump supporter himself, he was proud. “I’m glad they’re thinking,” he said. “Guys like me have Trump, but not everyone else.”

As people across the country sharpen their knives, convinced that we are in the throes of an ideological battle not just between Republicans and Democrats, but between good and evil, veterans organizations like AMVETS are in a unique position to demonstrate how people with different, even opposing political beliefs can work together to improve society. Because if you’ve ever served in the military, you’ve had the privilege – and it is a privilege, especially now – of knowing that politics is, or can only be, a small part of the human equation, that it is possible for the Liberals and the Conservatives to get along. Which brings us back to current events.

Veterans' organization under siege for taking part in inauguration parade

AMVETS Membership Director Harry Neal puffs on a cigar as he waits for the inaugural parade to resume. January 20, 2016Photo by Adam Linehan

On January 24, four days after AMVETS marched proudly in the inaugural parade through sparsely populated streets that would fill the next day with hundreds of thousands of people protesting the new administration, and five days after the organization organized a breakfast for 43 Medal of Honor Recipients at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown DC, a person or group of people snuck into the parking lot of AMVETS Headquarters in Lanham and spilled hundreds of nails and screws in rows on the asphalt. If their goal was to deliver a threatening message, they succeeded. And if their goal was to shut down an operation that provides a number of vital services to veterans, they were successful in that regard as well.

“I think they’re just trying to express their political displeasure, but they’re doing it in a very unproductive way,” Hoellwarth said. “I can’t imagine what they were trying to accomplish other than let us know they were angry. But I’ll tell you what, they caused thousands of dollars in damage and they stopped the AMVETS career center van truck, which is used for veteran placement. He’s supposed to be on the road helping veterans find jobs. This is currently not the case. They accomplished that.