The American Legion Approaches 100 Years

Last Updated by Samantha Dlugosh on
South Dakota American Legion State Commander Denny Brenden.

The legacy of World War I continues in South Dakota. "From the Great Plains to the Great War," a new Images of the Past documentary premieres on SDPB-TV Monday, June 25th at 9 p.m. Central, 8 p.m. Mountain. This week on In the Moment we bring you insight into the war with experts in the field. Today we welcome Denny Brenden, with the South Dakota American Legion. The American Legion was founded after WWI in 1919. 

This conversation has been edited for web use, to listen to it in its entirety click here.

Lori Walsh:                  

Welcome back to In The Moment. I'm Lori Walsh. The legacy of World War I continues in South Dakota. From the Great Plains to the Great War, a new Images of the Past documentary premieres on SDPB TV, Monday, June 25th. That's at 9 PM Central, eight Mountain. This week on In The Moment, we're bringing you insight into the war with experts in the field, and today we welcome Denny Brenden. He's with the South Dakota American Legion, and he joins us on the phone from Watertown. Denny Brenden, welcome. Thanks for being here.

Denny Brenden:          

Hey, thank you very much. I appreciate being here.

Lori Walsh:                  

And I think let's just start with this idea that the American Legion was founded during this time, which I, for one, did not know. Give us a little bit of that history.

Denny Brenden:          

Well, at the conclusion of World War II, Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt Jr. met with 20 of his officers, and was looking for a way to improve the morale of the troops. What they did is they decided to go as a veterans' organization, and they named that veterans' organization the American Legion. This was in February, and in March there was another organizational meeting, and in April there was a Paris Caucus, where 2,000 of ... Well actually, 1,000 I guess, of the most trusted officers and enlisted men met in Paris, France.

Denny Brenden:          

They established a constitution and by-laws. They established an executive committee to set up people to come back to the United States to start the organization in different states, and on May 15th, South Dakota met in Vermilion and established the South Dakota American Legion. The Department of South Dakota received its charter May 24th of 1919, and that's kind of a brief synopsis of how our organization began.

Lori Walsh:                  

Does the organization look similar now that it did then? Or has it evolved tremendously?

Denny Brenden:          

Well, it grew tremendously. The principles on what the American Legion was founded, we have four basic principles: Taking care of veterans, promoting our children and youth, promoting Americanism, and having a strong national defense. They started in 1919, that was the four basic principles, and they're what we still maintain as our four basic principles in the American Legion. Now across the nation, there's approximately 13,000 American Legion posts. In South Dakota there's approximately 244 American Legion posts. And they're in small communities, they're in large communities, and veterans meet in these areas and they do good things for their communities. They go into the school systems and help educate the children on flags, flag etiquette, and basically just out there working pretty much on a daily basis to take care of things in their community and to promote the American Legion and our principles.

Lori Walsh:                  

As a service organization, who can join?

Denny Brenden:          

The American Legion is a chartered veterans' organization. We're chartered through the United States Congress. We're a wartime veterans' service organization. We're a 501(c)(19). The dates that make eligibility in the American Legion are established by Congress, and basically all these dates are wartime periods. Now, to join the American Legion you don't necessarily have to serve in combat, but you have to serve during the wartime dates established by Congress. Now, our dates have, usually they start at this time and they end at this time, but since 9/11, August ... Since 9/11 happened, our dates have been open, and Congress haven't closed the dates, so eligibility in the American Legion the last 20 years, anybody that goes in is eligible for the American Legion.

Lori Walsh:                  

So do you find then that those younger veterans have an appetite for joining the American Legion? Or is that like many service organizations who have been around a long time, that there's that constant struggle to convince a younger generation of the value of this kind of service?

Denny Brenden:          

You know, I think I'm going to start by answering that question as saying that I was a chief operations officer for the American Legion for about eight years, and I went back in the history and I looked through a lot of the history of World War I in our newspapers, and the World War I veterans were nervous the World War II veterans wouldn't join the organization. When they came in, the World War II veterans were concerned the Korean veterans wouldn't join. And they came in. And the Korean veterans were definitely unsure if the Vietnam veterans were going to join the ranks after the way they were treated when they came back, but today, 60% of the American Legion is made up of Vietnam and Vietnam era veterans.

Denny Brenden:          

So I think the younger veterans, they got their plates full. They're doing all kinds of things. They're on their computers, they're raising families, just as most of us that did join the American Legion, and they will step up to the plate when the time is right. We're actively soliciting younger members. We have a lot of younger members in our leadership roles in the American Legion, and we're promoting women veterans. There's 7,000 women veterans in South Dakota, and we have a small percentage, and we're trying to bring them into our organization. We're trying to bring in the National Guard since they went into the deployments like they've been going. We need to get these people in our organization. They're very important to our structure.

Denny Brenden:          

So I think the younger veterans will come around. They're coming a little slower, maybe, than past generations, but when they really see what the American Legion does, I think there'll be no question that they'll want to be part of the organization.

Lori Walsh:                  

Let's talk about some of your programs. Where would you like to begin, as far as ... People in the state of South Dakota definitely know, baseball.

Denny Brenden:          

Well, we could start with the American Legion baseball. That was actually founded in Millbank, South Dakota in 1925. They wrote a resolution that passed our state convention, went on to the national convention, it passed at the national convention, and an American Legion baseball program became reality across the United States. Today in South Dakota, we have approximately 70 teams, and probably close to 1,000 young people that are involved in the program. It's growing. We've got more teams coming in, more kids wanting to play. And when you look at a high percentage, I would say over 50% of our professional baseball players started in American Legion baseball, this has really been a tremendous program for us.

Lori Walsh:                  


Denny Brenden:          

The second best, well, I shouldn't say the second best, but another premiere program we have in the American Legion is Boys State. Every year for one week, juniors in high school are eligible to sign up for Boys State, and if they're approved from the local American Legion post, they go to Northern State University for one week. And that week is basically on citizenship and political process. They learn the election process. They learn how to run. We have people running for city government, for county government, for state government, and it's a tremendous, life-changing experience for them.

Lori Walsh:                  

The American Legion Auxiliary does Girls State, and I was able to go to Girls State in South Dakota. We had the Girls State Governor on this program recently, and I put something up on social media about it, and I was just so almost shocked at how many of my Facebook friends had been to Girls State or Boys State and started telling their own stories. It's definitely ... And a lot of those people were in leadership positions throughout the state.

Denny Brenden:          

I see that a lot. I end up in Washington, DC quite a bit and talk to aides to our senators and our representative, and from different states even, and a majority of those people started in Boys State. That's where they got the desire to go a little bit farther, and senators too. And he was a Boys Stater. Kristi Noem, she was a Girls Stater. The auxiliary does a great job with the program. I was down there and spoke to the girls, and I think they had 373 girls in Girls State this year, just a tremendous bunch of girls.

Lori Walsh:                  

You were going to mention another program before I interrupted you there.

Denny Brenden:          

Well, I get talking about this, I get excited, because we have our Youth Trooper Academy. We started this, the American Legion and the Highway Patrol partnered up on a program, and we have a week-long school at Highway Patrol headquarters in Pierre, where juniors and seniors can apply to come to this academy. And in the past, we've had like 100 applicants for this, but the program is only set up for 24 individuals. And we try to get the best of the best. This program isn't for troubled youth. It's for the kids that really may have a desire for law enforcement.

Denny Brenden:          

We've seen some kids come out of school that are coming back to the Highway Patrol for a position. We see some kids that are going into college under criminal law. If you're going to be a sheriff, if you're going to be a deputy, work in the local police departments, or just understanding how the law enforcement works and what they have to go through. These kids are exposed to, relatively, a good share of what the Highway Patrol is into in a week's time. Starts on a Monday and they graduate on Friday.

Denny Brenden:          

And they're into the attack dogs, they're into driving the police cars around obstacles and stuff, and I guess that gets to be a little fun once in a while. They're into the range, and they just do all kinds of things that the Highway Patrol does. And I have to say that the Highway Patrol does just a tremendous job. A lot of these troopers donate their time for that week. They take their vacation, or they just may donate their time to be one of the instructors, one of the trainers at this. The Highway Patrolmen just love this program.

Lori Walsh:                  

Commander Brenden, we're going to have to stop here, because we're short on time, but I'll definitely have to have you back on the program to talk in the future about the American Legion. Thank you so much for being here.

Denny Brenden:          

Oh, thank you very much for allowing me to be on your program.

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