BRATTLEBORO — When Army veteran Denise Rohan tried to join her local American Legion post, she said she initially got a chilly reception.
“Back then, female veterans were told to join the Auxiliary,” she said. “It took a little education to get them to accept women in the post.”
Rohan, 60, who lives in Verona, Wisconsin, recently visited Brattleboro Post 5 as part of her ongoing campaign to be the new national commander of the American Legion. She would be the first woman to hold that post.
She currently is unopposed for the two-year position, which she was endorsed for in 2015 and has been campaigning for since. The election is to take place Aug. 24 at the Legion's 99th annual national convention in Reno, Nevada.
“It's a long process, but it takes that long to thoroughly vet a candidate,” she said in an interview with The Commons. “A candidate is expected to travel to all 50 states, meet with as many people as possible, and give everyone a chance to get to know them.”
It's also a big responsibility. She would represent 2.3 million members of the veteran's organization and be their chief advocate before state and national lawmakers.
A seasoned pioneer
Rohan is used to being a trailblazer. The Iowa native served in the Army's Quartermaster Corps from 1974 to 1976 during the era when the Regular Army was starting to integrate women into noncombat specialties to serve alongside men.
The Women's Army Corps, established during World War II, was fading into history. It was formally disbanded in 1978, and today women can serve in any military occupational specialty.
Rohan was one of the first women to go through the Army's training school in Fort Lee, Virginia, to be a Communications-Electronics Repair Parts Specialist. She not only finished at the top of her class, she soon became an instructor at the school.
After completing her two-year enlistment and receiving her honorable discharge at the rank of specialist, she got married and moved to Wisconsin in 1978.
Rohan retired from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 2012 after 29 years. She was the assistant bursar and managed the state university system's student loan portfolio.
She joined Post 333 in Sun Prairie, Wis., in 1982. It took a few years for her to get actively involved, but after her post commander recommended Rohan for the post adjutant position in 1988, she went from taking minutes at post meetings to being in charge of those meetings as the post commander in 1992, the first woman Post 333 elected to the position.
In another first, in 2010, she became the state Department Commander - the first woman in Wisconsin to lead the state's Legionnaires - winning the election by a 3-to-1 margin over the other candidates.
'For all who have served'
Rohan said the focus of her campaign is on the families of veterans and of those currently serving, particularly the National Guard and Reserve personnel who have been deployed on active duty since the start of the Global War on Terror in 2001.
She said she and her husband, Mike, have been very active with the Legion's Family and Troop Support program that deals with family issues during National Guard and Reserve deployments.
“We have put our military families through a lot in the past 15 years,” she said. “Most families are resilient, but you can only ask for so much, and our nation has asked for and received so much. That's why the Legion's primary mission is to be an advocate for all who have served their country and to support their families too.”
The other pillars of the American Legion, as she sees it, are maintaining a strong military and teaching young people what it means to be an American, through programs such as the Legion's Oratorical Contest, Boys' and Girls' State, and the Legion's flag etiquette training.
Her campaign for national commander was slowed a bit last November, when a fall from the roof of her home while she was stringing up holiday lights left her with two broken heels.
She has been confined to a wheelchair since then, but said she was mending well and should be ready by August to “walk across that stage in Reno” to accept the results of the national election.