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Commander quits Seattle veterans group over harassment, racism

Lindsay Church started Minority Veterans for America after leaving her position as post commander at Ballard's American Legion.
KUOW Photo/Gil Aegerter
Lindsay Church started Minority Veterans for America after leaving her position as post commander at Ballard's American Legion.

When Navy veteran Lindsay Church was elected commander of American Legion Post 40 in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood, she looked around the room and saw the future. It didn't look promising.

“Basically what I was seeing was the post was dying,” Church said. 

Older members were passing away, and membership was down. The post was at risk of closing its doors. Many other American Legion posts around the country face similar problems.

Church, who was also active as a student veteran at the University of Washington, wanted to change that.

"For that first year I spent all of my time dedicated to trying to build this post," Church said. "Rolling out new programs like sponsoring the first year of membership for all students, trying to get that new, young, active participation from the community."

It worked. Younger members joined. The post even won a service award.

But Church said that for all the successes in that first year, the culture of Post 40 was hard to endure at times.

“My very first night as commander of the American Legion, I had a gentleman come up to me and say —  and I quote — 'It's OK that you're gay, but you don't need to talk about your wife,'" Church said. 

Church, who identifies as lesbian and gender non-conforming, pushed on. She said she believed in the mission.  But it wasn’t only her problem.

"I would bring new women into the post, and the very first thing that they would be asked is, 'are you here for your boyfriend or husband?'" Church said. "And then they would be sexually harassed, asked out on dates, fighting with older gentlemen (who were) calling younger women 'poopsy.'"

[asset-images[{"caption": "Minority Veterans of America members Eric Ballentine, Samantha Fergus, Linsday Church and Penelope Dexenjaeger.", "fid": "143076", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201803/IMG_2220.JPG", "attribution": "Credit Patricia Murphy for KUOW"}]]She was taken aback when an older member took minutes during a meeting about recruiting more veterans of color.

“I got my notes back, and my notes said 'coloreds as potential members,'" Church said. "And I was, like, I don't even have words.”

Then Church said one of the members used a racist term for Asians —  a word she she’d never heard used before.

"I was surprised at how far he was willing to take it," Church said. 

Church resigned as commander of Post 40 in September. Her letter to the post is heartfelt and withering. In it she said the American Legion intentionally discriminates against women, people of color and the LGBTQ community.

Bob Patrick, the current commander at American Legion Post 40 sees things differently.

“Yeah, I call bullshit on that,” Patrick said in an interview with KUOW. "There was never any discrimination at the post level. We didn't discriminate against anybody, and we didn't discriminate for them. And I get the impression that she wants a special set of rights. And that's not the way we play."

Jim Robinson, the post's senior vice commander, was sitting next to Patrick during the interview. He said he doesn't agree with Patrick about anyone asking for special rights. Robinson recruited Church to the post, and he wanted her to carry it forward.

"There's a lot of smart-alecky language, and there's razzing between the services and that sort of thing," Robinson said. "There's a chance that she may have misinterpreted something said in jest." 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Lindsay Church listens to a Minority Veterans of America member from Atlanta, GA.", "fid": "143077", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201803/IMG_2227.JPG", "attribution": "Credit Patricia Murphy for KUOW"}]]Gary Roch, the Washington state commander for the Legion, doesn't see things that way.

“I’ve been in this volunteer position for a year, and I’ve gotten the opportunity to meet a lot of great people," he said. "But I've also seen this situation, the ugly side of what can happen in a post. And you know, it's too bad, because honestly, they lost. That post lost out on a great opportunity.”

Roch says a lot of members come from a different generation, and their world view is a lot different. But that doesn't mean they get a pass.

"We're going to get to the bottom of this," he said. "Because this is not right."

Roch said the Legion is investigating Church's claims. 

The American Legion is 100 years old. The organization recently elected its first female national  commander, Denise Rohan. In a statement to KUOW, Rohan said that discrimination is antithetical to what the organization stands for. The full statement is below:

“For nearly a century, The American Legion has stood for freedom and the rights of all veterans. Since our founding in 1919, our membership, by Congressional Charter, has been open to all wartime veterans regardless of race, creed, sex (or gender). Numbering two million strong, we have 13,000 posts throughout the United States and overseas. We are, in every way, representative of the fabric of our military and the nation which we defended. As an organization derived from the American people, we have faced many of the same challenges as society at large. In the past six months I have served as National Commander, I have met tens of thousands of our Legionnaires who are deeply involved in making a positive impact within their communities. Like all communities, we have posts that shine, and a few that have challenges. We are not perfect. As the National Commander of The American Legion, I am disappointed any time I hear of acrimony at one of our posts. I can unequivocally state that we reject discrimination in all of its forms. It is antithetical to who we are as Legionnaires, and I expect that every one of our members treat each other with the dignity and respect they deserve as veterans. We have all sworn an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States and are bound by the comradeship of our military service. The Department of Washington is aware of the situation and I am confident and will look into the matter.”

Church said the Legion owes its members more than words.

"What are you doing to combat it in your membership?" Church said.  "Because you're responsible for your members and what they do. Especially what they do in the name of the American Legion."

[asset-images[{"caption": "Poster from a Minority Veterans of America meeting.", "fid": "143116", "style": "offset_left", "uri": "public://201803/AmericanLegion.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Patricia Murphy"}]]In reality, American Legion posts have been segregated for years. In Seattle, American Legion Cathay Post 186 was formed because of discrimination against Chinese American veterans after WWII. There's also  Service Girls Post 204. 

According to a 2017 report from the Department of Veterans Affairs, people from minority groups represent nearly 23 percent of the U.S. veteran population. That number is expected to grow to nearly 36 percent by 2040.

Church and many of the members she brought in to Post 40 have moved on. Some went on to other local posts. But not Church.

After her resignation letter was shared on social media, she started hearing from others who felt out of place in traditional veteran spaces.

“We talked about it," Church said. "You know, what if we started our own thing? Not to try and get rid of the other organizations, because they have their purpose somewhere. What if we started something of our own?"

And with that Minority Veterans of America was born. Any veteran —  or ally — can join. 

Since August, the nonprofit has more than 200 members. The goal is to have a thousand members by the end of the year.