The American flag is held aloft by ladders from fire trucks above the American Legion parade held in Smethport on Labor Day.

SMETHPORT — Membership in the American Legion, the nation’s largest wartime veterans’ service organization, is expected to increase significantly now that the LEGION Act is on the books.

Signed into law by President Donald Trump on July 30, the LEGION Act — or Let Everyone Get Involved in Opportunities for National Service Act — redefines eligibility dates for American Legion membership, which can benefit as many as 6 million veterans as it provides access to the organization’s programs and benefits for the first time.

Since Congress granted the American Legion its charter as a patriotic organization in 1919, any changes in membership eligibility required Congressional approval. The organization continues to focus on service to veterans and their families, service personnel and communities.

From the beginning, the bill had bi-partisan support. On Feb. 14, Sen. Krysten Sinema, D-Ariz., introduced the bill — her first to become law — along with Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., in the upper chamber. Meanwhile, Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif., and Rep. Ben Cline, R-Va., introduced a similar bill in the House.

It passed both chambers without a single negative vote.

On the day of the bill’s signing, American Legion National Commander Brett Reistad said, “These veterans and their family members can now enjoy all the benefits of their service which they so richly deserve.”

Reistad also noted the work of Congress and the American Legion family helped with this legislative victory, saying, “Their efforts fulfill Resolution Number One that was passed unanimously by the Legion’s National Executive Committee last October in Indianapolis.”

Locally, the bill was certainly welcome.

“It’s appropriate to accomplish this on the American Legion’s 100th anniversary,” said Bart Barton, an Air Force veteran and adjutant of the Bucktail Post #138, Smethport American Legion, as well as president of the post’s Bucktail Club.

Previously, the American Legion could only accept honorably discharged veterans from specific eras: World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Lebanon and Grenada, Panama and the Gulf War/War on Terror.

The law reduces the number of periods of eligibility from those seven to two: April 1, 1917, to Nov. 11, 1918, and Dec. 7, 1941, until a time when the country is no longer at war, as decided by Congress. Since the eligible dates for American Legion membership are now open, veterans who had one day of active duty and an honorable discharge since Dec. 7, 1941, regardless of location, are qualified to join immediately.

“Veterans who want to join should contact the nearest Legion post,” Barton stated.

The criteria for joining the Sons of the American Legion will change along with the new veterans’ membership eligibility. Any son or grandson of a living American Legion member will qualify for SAL membership. Sons and grandsons of deceased veterans are also qualified to join.

As for the American Legion Auxiliary, membership is currently open to grandmothers, mothers, sisters, wives and adopted female descendants of eligible veterans.

Barton also pointed to the American Legion’s member benefits. Among these are career benefits and education assistance, family and community support, financial services, member discounts, homeless veterans’ outreach, governmental advocacy, volunteer opportunities and free subscriptions to the American Legion Magazine.