History was made in August, with the election of the first woman to serve as national commander of the American Legion. This weekend, she made her first official visits of American Legion posts in Maine.
Among the local state stops this weekend, Denise Rohan visited the Webber-Lefebvre Post 74 in Kennebunk and the Kennebunkport Memorial Post 159 in Kennebunkport on Friday morning, then the Ramsdell Rogers Post 56 in York Friday night. She began her day on Saturday with breakfast at Kezar Falls Post 123 in Parsonsfield, and then went to the Charles Hatch Post 79 in Berwick on Saturday. She ended her trip Saturday night with a banquet at Sanford Post 19.
A Wisconsin resident, Rohan said she is finding her first duties as national commander “humbling.”
An Army veteran, Rohan said the first time she tried to join the American Legion, she was told her husband Mike could join, but that women joined the Ladies Auxiliary. Now she is national commander and her husband is enjoying traveling with her as an aide. Both Rohans have served the Legion in local, state, district and national roles.
“Thirty-eight years ago, in a small town in Wisconsin (Marshall) the AL came to recruit my husband,” Rohan said. “My husband said I was also a veteran and that was the response I got. It’s strange to go from not being welcome to becoming national commander.”
Several years later, Rohan was allowed to join the American Legion in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. She eventually became commander of Post 333.
“I had a bunch of fantastic mentors, from World War II and Korea,” Rohan said. “They made me feel welcome. Wisconsin Legions are split into three levels, county, state and district. I was invited to hold a district office.”
Rohan became Wisconsin’s first woman state commander and was invited in 2012 to seek the national position.
“I said no, that I wasn’t qualified,” Rohan said. “I had always held the national commanders in the highest esteem. I learned there was a pool of past national commanders and was told they wanted me to seek the position.”
It was not handed to her. Rohan said she spent two and a half years being vetted through a series of national assignments.
“I was assigned national positions, as a sort of test,” Rohan said. “I headed the national membership and post activities. I was moved to the veteran’s employee and education board, with offices in Indiana and Washington, D.C. I traveled to 49 states (missed Hawaii), and Puerto Rico. I learned the concerns of each state and how to meet their needs.”
Jeff Chase, commander of Berwick Post 79, introduced Rohan. He noted that times have changed and the Legion has a strong history of embracing women in leadership roles.
“I thank you all for coming,” Chase said. “This is very important and historic, coming here to welcome the first female national commander. This is really something to celebrate.”
Rohan’s theme as national commander is “Family First” and her fundraising project is the Legion’s temporary financial assistance program, and the Legion’s service officer program. TFA awards cash grants to minor children of veterans who are eligible for American Legion membership. The grants help families in need meet the cost of food, shelter, utilities and health care.
There were two presentations during the Berwick event. Rohan was given a quilt to remind her of her time visiting the post, and Tom Hussey, a sixth-generation owner of the family that runs Hussey Seating, was given a plaque and a handmade flag box and flag to honor his company for the work it did creating the MIA/POW chairs displayed by all posts. The seat always sits empty and is honored at all post functions, said Post 79 member and retired Air Force Col. Rosanne Martin.
Ramsdell Rogers Post 56 Commander Donald Hands said they were honored and privileged to have Rohan visit during their fish dinner on Friday night.
“She brings a wealth of experience as a Legionnaire, a genuine concern for people, and a vision of ‘Family First’ for the American Legion,” Hands said.
Rohan was accompanied by State Commander Randall H. Kluj, Maine National Executive Committee Officer John Hargreaves, State Historian Jeffrey Stevenson, District One Commander Gordon Kendal, and other dignitaries.
Hands said Rohan heard a presentation by past post Commander Pete Doe, who described the difficult times experienced by the post, how it rose up to begin anew after losing its old post home and their view to the future.
“National Commander Rohan then awarded him a letter of appreciation signed by herself and the state commander for his effort,” Hands said.
Hands said before Rohan left, she made sure to walk among the crowd one more time, distributing some of her “Family First” pins.