Even as some Republicans question the efficacy of Keynesian economics, lawmakers in both parties have responded favorably to a certain passage in President Obama’s address to Congress last week.
“Pass this jobs bill, and companies will get extra tax credits if they hire America’s veterans,” the president thundered, prompting House Speaker John Boehner to rise from his seat on the rostrum. “We ask these men and women to leave their careers, leave their families, and risk their lives to fight for our country. The last thing they should have to do is fight for a job when they come home.”
Those words echoed a speech Obama had made two weeks earlier, when he addressed the 93rd Annual American Legion National Convention in Minneapolis.
“The president talked at length about his concerns for veterans,” said American Legion National Commander Fang Wong, who was elected to a one-year term during the convention. “He hit all the major concern areas that we were hoping to hear. He recognizes, as we recognize, that jobs for veterans is critical.”
Right now, 877,000 veterans are looking for work. Alleviating the plight of veterans—who often find themselves on the margins of society after leaving the military—is the central mission of the American Legion, which was chartered in 1919 to help veterans of World War I assimilate into civilian life.
Oftentimes, soldiers returning home from combat are maimed, physically or psychologically. Of the myriad injuries sustained in combat, the most intractable may be post-traumatic stress disorder. In response to pressure from the Legion and other groups, the Veterans Affairs Department is “pouring money and research” into PTSD, Wong said. Unlike other disorders, “the wound inside” is a function of a soldier’s personality and formative experiences, and therefore manifests in countless ways.
Wong went on to say that the Legion’s relationship with Veterans Affairs is sometimes an uneasy one. The two are inextricably linked: The Legion lobbied the federal government to establish the U.S. Veterans Bureau, a forerunner of the VA, but the Legion also behaves like a watchdog organization.
“We’re supportive of the VA, but we’re also very critical of the VA’s performance—we play both sides,” he said. “We look at the VA as one of the better medical facilities in the U.S., but there is a problem with the inconsistency of funding…. They never seem to have enough people to handle veterans’ claims in a timely manner. They fall further and further back—sometimes it takes a few months for a case to be processed.”
On Wednesday, Wong will outline the Legion’s legislative priorities at a joint hearing of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees. Dan Dellinger, the group’s legislative chairman, has characterized the presentation as “our State of the Union” and called upon members to make it a “standing-room-only event.”
The Chinese-born Wong is an unlikely leader for an organization that fosters “100 percent Americanism.” In the late 1940s—when he was still an infant—his family fled to Hong Kong, then a way station for refugees from Communist rule. They relied on remittances from Wong’s father, who had already immigrated to the U.S. and operated a laundry in Harlem. “Back then, greenbacks went a long way,” Wong said. “Not like today.”
On Nov. 13, 1960, Wong and the rest of his family landed on the tarmac at New York International Airport (later John F. Kennedy International Airport). Two weeks later, he celebrated his first Thanksgiving.
In December of that year, Wong enrolled in a junior high school around the corner from his father’s business. “I didn’t speak any English,” he said, “but when they found out I was 12 years old, they automatically put me in the sixth grade. I graduated in six months.” Wong was the only non-black student in his class.
The next year, he began taking classes at a Chinese-language school in lower Manhattan. In the summer of 1963, Wong was recognized with a medal and a scholarship check by a nearby post of the American Legion. He decided to repay its generosity.
“In the Far East, when you go to school, your job is to study hard. But this group, who didn’t even know me, honored me with a medal…. I had no idea what the American Legion did, but I wanted to be part of that organization. That made it easier to join when the time came.”
In 1969, Wong enlisted in the military and was sent to Vietnam. He was stationed at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Air Base, where he worked undercover as a Chinese-language expert. Wong relished the discipline and camaraderie of the Army, and would re-up for the next 20 years, stopping in New Jersey, Georgia, Philadelphia, Germany, and South Korea.
By the time of last month’s national convention, the next leader of the American Legion was already apparent. Wong was elected unanimously.
“There is competition, but in reality, the competition started many, many years ago,” he said. “I’ve been tested throughout my career.”
This article appears in the Sep. 12, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.