BUCKLEY — It's a good thing the American Legion Department of Illinois gives its senior vice commander and commander the use of a vehicle.
Wayne Wagner drove an estimated 35,000 miles in the past year using the 2009 Lincoln Towncar the Legion provided him following his appointment as state vice commander. This year, he expects just as many, if not more, miles on the 2012 Buick Enclave he is using as the newly installed state commander.
"We've been to pretty much every corner of the state," said the 66-year-old Wagner, a rural Buckley resident who usually brings along his wife, Jane, to the various engagements he attends.
"The nice thing is you're seeing old friends, but you're always meeting new friends," Jane Wagner said.
Wagner hopes to meet many more "new friends" in the upcoming year as he visits Legion posts throughout the state and attends job fairs to attract new members.
Wagner's main goal as the leader of the state department is maintaining membership for the 805 Legion posts in Illinois. And he knows traveling will be key to achieving that goal. Finding new members has become an increasingly difficult challenge that has required more proactive measures, he noted.
"We fell just a little bit short" last year, Wagner said about the goal of maintaining the same number of members as the year prior. "We were at 98.9 percent last year, so we did a good job.
"Next year, we're working toward 100 percent membership, which means we will not lose any membership. ... Membership is an important part of getting our funding to carry out the programs we do."
Illinois has "just under 100,000" members of the American Legion, Wagner said. But he said more will be added once the national organization adds members to the statewide total. The national organization sends out a mass mailing each year asking veterans to join, and this year's respondents have yet to be added to the total, Wagner said.
Wagner was also responsible for membership in the Legion when he served as senior vice commander, a position he held from July 2011 until his installation as commander earlier this month. The duties took him on the road many times as he visited Legion posts and represented the Legion at 16 job fairs, where he promoted the organization and sought to find new members.
"The job fairs have really picked up this last year," Wagner noted. "We didn't do really any prior to last year. ... We go to job fairs mainly (to give) support (to veterans), since we're really not hiring employees. But we're there to support the veteran any way we can, and make them aware of all the benefits that they may have through the VA (Veterans Administration)."
Wagner said last year's results were mixed, but there were positive signs that the organization can grow.
Wagner thinks that membership will probably get a boost once some of the younger veterans — such as those who served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars — start joining.
Wagner said he enjoyed traveling and meeting people through the position he held and expects that to continue in the upcoming year. He will serve as commander until the state American Legion convention next July, when the current senior vice commander, Bernie Stegmueller of Chicago, will be promoted to commander.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience, that's for sure," Wagner said.
Wagner is the first state commander from Buckley, but not the first from East Central Illinois. Another Iroquois County resident, Roger Bennett of Thawville, served as state commander 10 years ago. Five years ago there was a Farmer City resident, Myron Kirby, who held the position. Also, there was a national commander from Champaign — Marty Conatser.
Wager was installed as commander on July 14, replacing David Hicks of Deer Creek.
Each of the state's five divisions of the American Legion has a representative serve as commander every five years.
Because Wagner is now commander, he is not allowed to continue holding his national appointment on the Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission — a position he held for an estimated 10 years. The commission is involved with lobbying Congress for funding for various VA initiatives.
But Wagner said he plans to "still do lobbying, just not for a specific commission."
"The big thing right now is post traumatic stress disorder," he said. "We're pushing for more research on therapy to treat the disorder. We're pushing for more funding to find treatments, because there's only two treatment facilities in the U.S. specifically for it."
Once Wagner's term expires next year as commander, the Vietnam-era veteran, who served in the Air Force from 1965-69, said he is considering running for election as an alternate for the Legion's national executive committee.