WASHINGTON — American Legion members elected their first female national commander on Thursday, the second woman this month to take over the top leadership role of a major national veterans organization.
Denise Rohan, an Army veteran active in the Legion for 32 years, will oversee the nation’s largest veterans membership organization for the next year. The Iowa native and longtime Wisconsinite becomes the public face and most prominent policy advocate of the 2.4 million veteran members.
“We all know the American Legion is at its best when we work together as a family,” she said during her inaugural speech to Legion members during group’s convention in Nevada Thursday. “As we continue to have troops deployed across the globe, the American Legion family will stand tall next to our heroes and their families.”
Rohan’s election comes three weeks after Army veteran Delphine Metcalf-Foster took over the top leadership post at Disabled American Veterans, becoming the first female national commander in that group’s history.
That makes 2017 the first time year ever that two of the largest veterans groups — traditionally dominated by male leadership — will feature women atop their organizations.
Army vet Mary Stout served as commander of Vietnam Veterans of America from 1987 to 1991, but none followed over the next 25 years. But as the number of women in the ranks have grown in recent years, veterans organizations have followed.
Three years ago, the American Legion named Army veteran Verna Jones the first female executive director in the organization’s century of operations. Earlier this year, officials at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America promoted Army veteran Allison Jaslow to the same post. Army veteran Marsha Four has served as vice president of Vietnam Veterans of America since 2013.
Rohan spent two years in the Army, working in the quartermaster corps. Along with her American Legion work — she has served a host of local and state leadership roles in recent years over three decades — she also held various roles at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and volunteered with the family readiness groups of several Wisconsin Army National Guard units.
Fellow veterans praised her as a “true leader” and a dedicated servant on behalf of veterans issues. She said she will have a theme of “family first” for the upcoming year.
Rohan said when she first tried to join the Legion in the 1970s, “I was told women join the auxiliary.” The line drew uncomfortable laughs from the assembled crowd.
“Here I am today, the newly elected national commander,” she said. “And that post that denied me membership 37 years ago? They have a photo up of me now, saying ‘remember, she could have been a member of this post.’ Women are veterans too.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.