The veterans of American Legion Post 204 ― the “Service Girls” ― as they’re known in their Pacific Northwest home, are speaking out about the American Legion’s membership policies, which currently exclude the spouses of female veterans in every branch of their organization.
The former commander of Post 204 and 35-year Army veteran Carrol Stripling is getting ready to file a third resolution with the American Legion since 2015. Her first two resolutions were denied. Stripling said the denials were representative of a culture that hasn’t always respected the needs of female vets.
“We don’t want our service undervalued any longer,” Stripling said at a June 23 meeting in Bothell, Wash.
Founded in 1946, Post 204 is one of the few all-female American Legion posts across the country. Located in Washington state, the post is open to any female service members who’d like to join.
“We call ourselves Post two-zero-four ― never two-oh-four ― because it makes [people] remember our name and who we are,” said Sandy Cooper, a retired Air Force veteran and the first female USAF fire chief.
“As a woman veteran, you can’t be average. You have to be better than the men to get respect,” Cooper continued.
Respect is why Post 204 came into being. Born out of what the women said was a need for sharing in a way only female vets can understand, the service members said they support each other in and out of meetings without judgment.
But they said they also have a looming concern about the organization that has come to offer them so much comradery: they want the same benefits their male counterparts are offered. They want their husbands to have a place within the American Legion organization.
Elizabeth Bissett, Air Force veteran, echoes the concerns of the other members. “I want to be able to have a male auxiliary … all of us are in the same boat and we don’t have an official auxiliary,” Bissett said.
The American Legion history
Since it was chartered by Congress in 1919, the American Legion, or The Legion, is the largest wartime veterans’ nonprofit organization.
According to The Legion’s website, it was developed by “war-weary vets from World War I” and it quickly grew into a unique reprieve for service members to connect.
The organization offers a network for vets to grow friendships, bonding over volunteering events and activities, as well as unifying members through shared experiences. The Legion prides itself on patriotism and support for its 2.4 million members across the nation, according to its mission statement.
The American Legion Auxiliary (ALA), developed the same year as The Legion, is a club for spouses of male veterans, as well as daughters of veterans.
Essentially, it’s a place for women to lend support for each other and their service members.
The ALA offers similar kinship and events, offering “support to The American Legion and to honor the sacrifice of those who serve…” according to the ALA mission.
Likewise, The Sons of the American Legion (SAL) is an organization that offers membership to sons of veterans.
While these organizations have independent rules and statutes which dictate membership eligibility, all are inclusive to most relatives of veterans. But none offer memberships to spouses of female veterans, despite a growing concern.
Female membership in the military
In 1948, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act was passed by Congress, allowing women to have a permanent place in the military. But long before it was a law, women have inserted themselves in military efforts dating back to the late 18th century.
Today, women represent 16 percent of all enlisted service members and 18 percent of officers. These numbers are up from 1973, when women represented 2 percent and 8 percent, respectively.
The influx of female armed service members over the last 40 years are not reflected in the American Legion’s membership policies, which haven’t changed since it began in 1919, despite The Legion’s declining membership numbers.
While there are more active female Legion members today, there’s still no place for their spouses to gather in support of their service.
“You know, my husband has said to me, ‘if there were other husbands here that I had a way to network with, we could go out and have a golf outing or we could do this or that,' so there is a need and an interest in networking,” Cooper said.
Membership eligibility and the American Legion Auxiliary
The complicated issue of changing policy to include male spouses of female vets in the ALA is determined by different factors. These factors dictate how and if the constitution of the American Legion Auxiliary can be amended.
ALA National Secretary and Executive Director Mary “Dubbie” Buckler released a statement in 2015 on the subject: “The American Legion Auxiliary is a separate corporation, incorporated as an all-female organization with our own Tax Identification and our own IRS Group Exemption independent from The American Legion. As such, we cannot amend our American Legion Auxiliary bylaws to change membership eligibility because our Articles of Incorporation filed with the government already prohibits it.”
She went on to say: “The American Legion Auxiliary is both incorporated and constituted as an all-female organization and our national governing documents cannot conflict with The American Legion’s governing documents. The American Legion National Constitution Article 13, Section 2 specifically limits membership in the American Legion Auxiliary to females, as specified consistently in everything published stating membership eligibility criteria. Therefore, any changes to membership eligibility in The American Legion Auxiliary would first require a constitutional amendment to both the Legion and ALA constitutions and an amendment by the federal government to the IRS Code, which is considered very unlikely.”
The vets of Post 204 say the long explanation is an excuse by the American Legion and the Auxiliary so they won’t lose their standing as a federal charter.
“They’re worried about losing their federal charter. If you leave [the tax code] the way it is, nobody can mess with it,” Stripling said. “Before we went to Panama and Grenada, the Legion went to the IRS and said, ‘You know, we are all dying, we will have no members … so let’s let some of those Cold War veterans in’ and the IRS said, ‘Sure.’ … So you can see it’s a misnomer.”
Another explanation came from the American Legion Frequently Asked Questions Guide in a 2013 document citing that the need for male spouses to have a separate auxiliary would be arbitrary.
In direct response to the question of why female spouses don’t have a separate organization, the document read: “Over the last few years, Internal Affairs has had a few resolutions on male spouses of female veterans (either to join SAL or to establish a separate male auxiliary) that were considered by various Convention Committees and all were rejected … it was unanimously decided that the American Legion is a wartime veterans’ organization and not a social organization. Each of the three organizations has specific requirements for membership with specific purposes and to add spouses either male or as defined by specific states would not add value to our organizations.”
American Legion Auxiliary headquarters did not respond to further questions on the subject of membership eligibility.
What comes next?
Master Sgt. Kacie Chiappini, a current Air Force reservist from the Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Vienna, Ohio, said she joined the American Legion because it was a way to bond with her WWII veteran grandfather.
“My grandfather was the last WWII [veteran] still living that was a member at our post and we would meet him there a lot before he passed away. He loved it there … but it was mostly [him] that got me going there,” Chiappini said.
Like the women of Post 204, Chiappini shares concerns over why her husband can’t join the club where she’s had so many fond experiences.
“To me, it’s mostly principle,” Chiappini said. “It needs to change.”
Chiappini brought the issue up to her commanding officer Lt. Col. John Boccieri. Boccieri is a also a member of the American Legion and a former U.S. congressman in Ohio’s 16th District.
“I, too, was startled by the fact that the American Legion will not permit spouses of female service members to join the auxiliary organization. Permitting a family to honor all veterans in such an esteemed organization as the American Legion can only strengthen the respect we pay to all veterans, whether male or female,” Boccieri said.
The movement for change is in early stages as more female vets question the policies of The Legion.
However, the women of Post 204 want vets like Chiappini, and every other female service member, to have the opportunity for a male auxiliary in support of their service in the near future.
Stripling, Cooper and Bissett shared their frustrations over previous efforts to file resolutions and how their voices, seemingly lost before having a chance to use them, may not be enough to spark the necessary measures of change.
“These resolutions we filed, they go to committees, but sometimes they don’t even reach the committees because the staff pulls them,” Stripling said. “The committees are appointed, but you don’t know which committee sees the resolution.”
In the coming months, Stripling will file a third resolution with the American Legion, hoping this time it will make a difference.
“I just think that changing the culture of The Legion will help change the whole culture in the military. That’s what we’re here for,” Stripling said.
The women say they won’t stop until The Legion recognizes the need for a male auxiliary in support of female veterans, whose service is just as valuable as their male counterparts.
“We’re gonna fight. And we’re eventually gonna get it,” Bissett said