American Legion National Commander Denise Rohan meets legionnaires at the Thomas W. Cole Post 19 in Sanford on Saturday night. LIZ GOTTHELF/Journal Tribune

American Legion National Commander Denise Rohan meets legionnaires at the Thomas W. Cole Post 19 in Sanford on Saturday night. LIZ GOTTHELF/Journal Tribune

SANFORD  — The first-ever woman national commander of the American Legion in the organization’s 98-year history, Denise Rohan, was the guest of honor Saturday night at a banquet at American Legion T W Cole Post 19.

Rohan, who lives with her husband, Mike, in Verona, Wisconsin, has been a member of the American legion for 34 years. Rohan served in the U.S. Army from 1974-1976 as a stock control and accounting specialist and repair parts specialist course instructor.

Rohan said in a brief interview Saturday night that when she was going through basic training, she was homesick and learned to depend on her “new sisters.” After marrying in 1976, her husband continued in the military and as she, her husband and son moved from military base to military base, they found that same sense of family wherever they were.

That sense of family continues in the American Legion. Though members may have served in different eras, they have all gone through basic training, and have common ground.

“We all know we can depend on each other,” she said.

Rohan said Legion members are always ready to help others in need, whether it be a local Legion member or an effort to gather supplies to an area that’s suffered a national disaster.

Rohan’s theme for her year as national commander is “Family First.”

“It’s all about taking care of each other,” said Rohan. “That’s what we’re here for.”

Local American Legion members echoed the sense of kinship among Legion members.

District 1 Commander Gordan “Gunny” Kendall said one of the reasons why he liked the Legion was because there was always someone to talk to who could relate to your experience as a veteran. He said Rohan was very warm and friendly, and he liked her “Family First” theme.

“She’s wonderful,” he said.

Post 19 Commander Mike Iosua said Legion members are always willing to help one another in a time of need. Reflecting on the first woman commander, he said, “I think it’s absolutely great. I’ve never been prouder to be a Legionnaire.”

Rohan addressed the roomful of people at the banquet and said it was very humbling to serve as the national commander, and noted that women have been in the Legion since its inception in 1919.

“It really is all about family,” she said. “Together we make extraordinary things happen.”

Rohan told the story of a time she was at a veteran’s event at a middle school, and a girl started to cry when a Gold Star father told of his son being killed in Afghanistan.

Rohan spoke to the student and her mother, and discovered that while the girl’s father was deployed, the family received assistance from the American Legion when they had a house fire and a water heater that wasn’t working. The mother told Rohan that the American Legion kept her husband safe, as he could focus on his work in the military because he didn’t have to worry about his family.

Rohan said the girl who had been crying was the oldest of three siblings, and had stayed strong for her siblings while her father was deployed. As the Gold Star father talked, the emotions she had pushed down started to bubble up, said Rohan. The American Legion saw that the girl received counseling, and now the girl helps other military children understand that it’s okay to be sad when a parent is deployed, said Rohan.

Rohan will continue visiting other posts throughout her year as national commander. Her fundraising project is the Legion’s Temporary Financial Assistance program and the Legion’s Service Officer program. The Temporary Financial Assistance program awards cash grants to minor children of veterans who are eligible for American Legion membership, helping families in need meet the cost of shelter, food, utilities and health expenses. 

Staff Writer Liz Gotthelf can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 325 or [email protected] 

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