Iraq is on minds
of convention-goers

15,000 American Legion
members are here to talk
about the war and health care

While Minnesota native Ellie Johnson knows the pain of losing a loved one in war, she doesn't think much of the "spectacle" of Cindy Sheehan's weeks-long protest vigil outside President Bush's ranch in Texas.

"She has the right to her stance and opinion, that's what America is all about," Johnson said, whose brother John Orlemann was killed in Vietnam in 1969. "Personally, I don't agree.

"My brother and all the others who fought for freedom and laid down their lives so that she could have that freedom," Johnson said of the much-publicized anti-war protest of Sheehan, the mother of an Army soldier killed last year in Baghdad.

Johnson is among the roughly 15,000 American Legion and American Legion Auxiliary members in Hawaii for their 87th National Convention this week.

She and others gathered at the Hawaii Convention Center where the week-long event kicked off yesterday with a morning session on national security and foreign relations.

The war in Iraq and the growing protests against it were just two of the many topics on the minds of convention-goers.

The No. 1 topic was pushing for mandatory health care coverage for veterans, American Legion officials said. They are calling for full Medicare Reimbursement and looking to address a $1.5 billion shortfall in VA medical care this year.

"Native Americans and veterans are the only groups who have to rely on discretionary funding," said Ramona Joyce, American Legion spokeswoman. "If the funds are there we get it, if not we don't.

"This is not just a veterans issue ... every active service member who will become a veteran should be concerned about it."

Legion committees are meeting during the weekend, a parade is scheduled for today and the convention officially begins Tuesday at the convention center. Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Pacific Air Forces commander, will speak on Tuesday. Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson is the keynote speaker on Wednesday.

The convention will be the second largest in Hawaii this year, behind the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans conference in November, which is expected to draw 17,000 people.

So far, Hawaii has been a good draw for many veterans this year, said National Commander Thomas Cadmus. He acknowledged that the cost to get here has forced some to stay at home.

"Some place like Seattle, Wash., we'll get about 19 to 20,000 to come," Cadmus said. "So we're down a little.

"But this convention center is absolutely fantastic. We love how it's open and the lanais and tradewinds. Plus you have every branch of the military represented here ... everything from submarines to C-17s."

For some the convention was an excuse to return home.

Former Oahu resident and 1954 Roosevelt High School graduate Dennis Michael Duggan had 25 years of active service and is the Legion's deputy director in Washington, D.C. A retired Army Colonel and Purple Heart and Bronze Medal of Honor recipient, Duggan was assigned to a Ranger unit in Vietnam when he was wounded in combat in 1966.

Duggan said he also sympathizes with Sheehan over the death of her son, but he is proud of his military service and that of others.

"To me it represents the very highest form of service," he said. "I'd do it all over again if I had to.

"But if I could avoid getting wounded, I would."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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