American Legion Commander Candidate Describes Challenges for Veterans

NEW YORK—Fang Wong reaches into his black suitcase and removes a small box. Above a stamp with Chinese characters is written “The American Legion.”

“I’ve been carrying this for 40-some years. This is the original box, falling apart,” says Wong, as he slowly lifts the cover.

Inside is a bronze-colored medal inscribed with a scene of American troops. Along the top is written “For God and Country.” Along the bottom is written the motto of the United States Marines: “Semper Fidelis,” Latin for “Always Faithful.”

Wong was given the award when he was still in junior high school in New York’s Chinatown. “I feel that somehow I’m meant to be part of this,” Wong says.

Wong is one of the leading candidates to become the next American Legion National Commander. He immigrated to the United States from China when he was just 12. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen, and was given the medal just a couple of years later, as an award for good school work. It left an impression on him that became a guiding beacon for the rest of his life.

He volunteered for the Army in 1969 and served 25 months in Vietnam. He learned when he was young that only veterans of American wars could join the American Legion. “Maybe that was one of the things, when it was time for me to go and they said wait to be drafted or volunteer to join. Maybe that had something to do with it,” he said.

Wong would spend 20 years in the Army before he retired in May 1989, as a chief warrant officer (CW3). He joined the American Legion that same year.

“The more you get into it, the more you understand how much the veterans still love their country, how much they still want to put out,” Wong said, during an interview at the American Legion’s Lt. B. R. Kimlau Chinese Memorial Post in New York.

Embedded in Chinatown, the American Legion post is filled with veterans with service dating back to World War II. Two coffee dispensers filled with tea sit on a table near men playing a game of Mahjong—a Chinese game played with small tiles. Others sit and chat. Although this branch of the American Legion is predominantly joined by ethnic Chinese veterans of American wars, each of its membersshares a common bond felt by all veterans.

Wong sits downstairs in a hall reserved for events. The walls are decorated with photographs of men and women who passed through the American Legion. Flags representing each branch of the U.S. military are draped from the ceiling.

Wong is soft spoken and is quick to laugh. If he wins the spot as the next American Legion National commander on Sept. 1, 2011, he will carry the torch as an advocate for the decisions of the American Legion membership.

The American Legion was incorporated by Congress just following the first world war in 1919, as an organization representing America’s veterans. As the largest veteran service group in the country, the nonprofit American Legion is a voice for veterans’ rights.

The organization is driven by the resolutions of its members. The national commander doesn’t make rules, but instead represents the overall stance of its members—particularly regarding Department of Defense policies that affect veterans.

“When they are doing well we are their biggest supporters, we lobby for them,” Wong said. “When they are not doing well we point out their shortcomings … what they need to change.”

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