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Presented By The Wisconsin American Legion Foundation’s
Celebration of Freedom


Stories of risk, sacrifice, duty and honor.
When a recruiter for the American Legion came
knocking on veteran Denise Rohan’s door many years
ago, he spoke mainly to Rohan’s husband, Mike, who
also served in the military. When she identified herself
as eligible to join, the recruiter told her women typically
joined the auxiliary.
Rohan’s state
photo now
the wall at
that legion
post along
with a sign
that reads,
“She could
have been
a member
of this post.
women are veterans too.
too ”
That’s not where the Verona resident’s
(Columbia County Fairgrounds)
service ends: On Aug. 24, 2017, she
was elected national commander of
America’s largest veteran’s organization
the 99th American Legion
National Convention in Reno, Nevada.
American Vietnam
Rohan became the first woman ever to
hold that post.”
Denise joined the U.S. Army in 1974.
She began serving with the legion
in 1984. Previously she served as
commander of Post 333 in Sun
Prairie, where she established a Sons
of the American Legion squadron and
also chartered a Boy Scout troop.
Additionally, she previously served as
department commander for the state.
Rohan served for two years with the
quarter master corps, a supply division.
Denise explained: “When it was time
for me to reenlist, I had gotten married
and the Army could not guarantee my
husband and I would be stationed
together. So I got out and became a
With Country Singer and
military spouse.”
The by-laws of the two-millionrite
member service organization states
any person who served in any war
campaign the U.S. was involved in
from December, 1941 to the present
is eligible.
“The reality is, when the legion’s
founders established the legion, it
didn’t matter what race, religion or gender you were,” Rohan said. “Women have been part of it
from the beginning.”
However, women haven’t always been allowed to serve on the front lines. Women have always
served in supporting roles such as nurses and clerical and mechanical work (in some cases they
were used as test pilots for fighter planes), and in 1979 enlistment qualifications became the same
for men and women. But while women were able to enlist, they were prohibited from combat roles
and assignments. In 1994 the U.S. Department of Defense went so far as to ban women from
serving in combat. Times have changed, and in 2013 the ban on women serving in combat was
finally lifted.
That history has led to a general misunderstanding about how women fit into a field dominated by
Rohan said through her time serving in, and learning about the American Legion, she now
understands why it may have taken longer for women to be totally accepted into the fold.
“When I traveled what I began to understand is, veterans come back and have personal distress, like
PTSD,” Rohan said. “We know now how to deal with that. After WWII, Korea, Vietnam – people called
it shell shock - but they were told to go to work and get over it. There was no treatment because it
wasn’t understood.”

Veterans Memorial Field

Freedom is not FREE
September 6
Chris Kroeze

By default, these men would find commonality at places like legion halls. Rohan said because
women weren’t always welcome, it may seem discriminatory. But when you look at the culture and
history, it is easy to understand how and why it happened.
“(Men) couldn’t feel vulnerable in front of a woman,” Rohan said.
American Legion halls served as safe places for men to discuss common experiences and feelings.
“They could talk to other veterans who understood what they had been through and feel safe to talk
amongst each other,” Rohan said. “When you put a woman in that mix, it changes the dynamic. But
now they understand women do serve in combat and also have those feelings. Times are changing.”
Rohan’s climb to the top was difficult at best – and not at all planned.
The process starts with two full years of campaigning, followed by a year of service as a national
commander – if elected. During her year of service, Rohan was only home for 32 days – with the
majority of the time off being a 10-day period around Christmas. Even then, she said, she was
doing telephone interviews or meetings
via Skype.
“It’s a huge commitment,” Rohan said.
“Technically you give up three years.
I think it’d hard for some people to think
of a woman doing that. And it was –
I missed my (family).”
Luckily, because Denise’s husband,
Mike, also served in the military and is a
Legionnaire, he was able to travel with her
as her official aide.
“What compelled me to run for National
Commander? I kind of don’t know
how happened,” Rohan said. “I wasn’t
necessarily looking to do it, but I always had a great respect for the legion.” After years of volunteering
and serving on state and local committees, Rohan was eventually moved into a leadership position
by the national organization. “If someone gives you job, you do it to the best of your ability,”
Rohan said.
As National Legion Commander,
Rohan was expected to visit every
state in the U.S.
U as well as posts
in foreign countries.
countries “We do have
Americans living overseas,”
overseas Rohan
said. Legion posts are also in Paris,
the Philippines, Puerto Rico,
Mexico Australia, South Korea, Guam
and Ireland.
In her role,
role Rohan met with state
and secretaries of veterans
affairs regarding veteran issues and
how the Legion could assist in getting legislation passed and implemented. More importantly, it was
an opportunity for Rohan to get an idea of what veterans’ needs are from a local, state and federal
Rohan’s meetings with state’s Adjutant Generals revealed the military’s greatest need is family
“I remember being incredibly homesick when I was in basic training,” Rohan said. “I’d be crying to
my mother over the telephone and she somehow talked me through it. She told me the women in
my basic training were my new family; that we had to lean on each other. We were sisters now and
had to take care of one another.”
After Denise and Mike married, they traveled a lot and had to make new friends and establish a new
family every place they went.
“When you are married to a person in the military, you are constantly uprooted, have to find a new
job, get the kids enrolled in a new school … you quickly learn your military family is core.”
That’s where the Legion’s “family first” theme comes from.
“You need to have that understanding with those core people in which you have things in common,”
Rohan said. “The Legion takes care of families so (the individual serving) can focus on the mission.”
Now that she is back home in Verona,
Rohan has been spending a lot of time
with her family, and getting back to her
efforts to further the Legion’s mission,
teaching kids about the U.S. Constitution,
how to respect the American flag and
those serving, and making sure kids are
healthy and stay active.
“It’s the reason I joined the American
Legion in the first place; to be part of
my community and do grass roots stuff,”
Rohan said. “Now that I am back home, I am back to taking care of vets and their families, and
teaching kids what it means to be American. It’s a complete circle.”

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