Bill-burning, backstabbing, and backroom deals: Inside the American Legion in its 100th year

"We used to be a leader," a current Legion staffer said. "Now we ride coattails."

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Photo Illustration by Paul Szoldra/Task & Purpose

In late 2017, John McCain and Jerry Moran, two senior Republican senators on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, penned the first draft of what would become the VA Mission Act, a transformational law that paved new pathways to private sector healthcare for veterans.

The Mission Act essentially made permanent the VA Choice Act, a controversial 2014 law passed in the wake of a wait-time scandal at a Phoenix veterans' hospital. The Choice Act became unpopular among veterans' advocates for a variety of reasons, including that it represented a major step towards the privatization of VA services.

Among the harshest critics of Choice was the American Legion, the oldest and, arguably, most influential veterans' organization in America.

In 2017 congressional testimony, Legion legislative staffer Jeff Steele tore into the law's many problems, declaring veterans "have not found [Choice] to be a solution."

"Instead," Steele said, "they have found it to create as many problems as it solves."

Perhaps hoping to stem any criticism, McCain and Moran sought feedback on their legislation from the Legion before making it public. After the organization's then-legislative director, Lou Celli, read a draft bill at home over one weekend, he felt it went against the best interests of veterans, and would further crack open the door to privatization. A major complaint of Celli's was that the bill completely stripped the agency of the right to coordinate care for veterans based on medical need.

Rather than communicate those concerns productively, Celli, in an apparent act of anger, took the bill out into his backyard, and lit it on fire. The legislation's ashy remains were then photographed, and eventually circulated around Capitol Hill.

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