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BOONVILLE, IND. — When Jim Koutz first set foot into American Legion Post 200 in Boonville, he was there only to help a friend cook some fish. But his association with the post and the Legion has turned into something more than that.
Koutz joined the American Legion, and through the years held several offices in the local post. He then moved up the national chain of command until last September, when he became the American Legion’s national commander.
Now he’s on a first-name basis with the president of the United States — sort of.
“I’ve sat right in the Oval Office with him and talked one-on-one about the backlog of VA claims,” Koutz told the Evansville Courier & Press. “He is a great guy, one-on-one. He called me Jim, and he told me to call him Barack. I said ‘No, sir, I am not going to call you Barack. I’m going to call you the president of the United States.’ But he really impressed me. As long as he does what he said he was going to do for veterans and their families, that’s what we want.”
Koutz and Obama have met twice and will almost certainly meet again. Koutz attended a breakfast with the president, vice president and their wives at the White house on Veterans Day last year before attending services at Arlington Cemetery. The president also met with Koutz the day before sequestration, because Koutz had expressed concerns about what the cuts would mean for past and current soldiers.
Koutz, who is also a member of the Boonville Elks Club and the Boonville VFW, called being national commander a “wonderful opportunity.” He’s traveled to 42 states and eight countries since his election. The mission is personal for Koutz, who has unpleasant memories of the way he and other Vietnam soldiers were treated when they came home.
“Us Vietnam veterans are making sure the returning soldiers now aren’t treated like we were,” he said. “In a lot of ways, we were treated badly. Vietnam veterans are getting thank-yous now, and that’s good. But we are going to be sure that never happens again. We want to be sure all soldiers are welcomed home.”
One of Koutz’s primary tasks is to work with the Department of Veterans Affairs on reducing the backlog of VA claims. The number of backlogged claims reached more than 900,000 earlier this year, two-thirds of which had been pending for 125 days or longer.
“We have committee members working with the VA every day to end that backlog,” Koutz said. “We have too many people who have had claims for two or three years. That is way too long. I know that they are trying to go paperless by 2015, which should make things faster. But we are going to have to get it in gear to get there.”
Koutz has spent much of his time and effort trying to raise funds for wounded soldiers. Those soldiers have their medical treatment paid for, but often have almost no personal items. Operation Wounded Warrior, which Koutz started, is an attempt to provide what the military does not.
“I just think we need to take care of veterans and their families,” Koutz said. “My slogan is ‘Every day is Veterans Day.’ My goal is to raise a half-million dollars for Operation Comfort Warrior. That helps wounded soldiers get comfort items like radios, televisions, iPods, gift cards, things like that.”
In the last two months, Koutz has helped deliver items to wounded soldiers in Georgia and South Carolina. The deliveries have included everything from electric guitars to softballs.
“It gives you cold chills,” Koutz said. “These guys and gals have sacrificed so much for us. That’s why I wanted to start Operation Comfort Warrior, to take care of them. Every cent that gets donated — and several posts have had fundraisers — goes to the soldiers.”
Koutz was drafted into the Army in 1968. At the time, his mother was the director of Warrick County’s draft board. So while other draftees got their notices by mail, his was hand-delivered by his mother at the dinner table.
He attended basic training at Fort Knox, Ky., and then went to California for advanced infantry training. He was sent to Vietnam in January 1970 and served there for 15 months. He extended his tour by three months so he could get an early discharge.
In the Army, Koutz was with Company C 169th Engineer Battalion. His job was mostly to build roads for hauling supplies. He was honorably discharged with the rank of specialist 5 in March 1971.
After his discharge, he and his brother got jobs at Alcoa Warrick Operations. But after his brother died in an industrial accident there, Koutz took a job in the local coal mines, retiring from AMAX Coal Co. in 1995. He then took a job with Warrick County as the service officer for the local Veterans Affairs office. He retired from that position in October.
Koutz served as the commander of Post 200 for nine years and hadn’t given much thought to doing anything more. But in 1982, he was named district commander. In 1990 he was elected as department commander, which included the state of Indiana. He has served as the Legion’s Economic Commission chairman for four years and the Legislative Commission chairman for two years.
“I got the go-ahead to run for national commander in 2004 when we were having our national convention,” Koutz said. “So that’s when I started with the Economics Commission and the Legislative Commission. And then I campaigned for two years, visited all of the states. Most of the time, nobody comes out to run against you, but you never know. So you have to campaign, and that can be very expensive.”
Koutz has been back to Boonville only three times since his election last August. He was in town May 10 as he prepared for a trip to Europe and beyond. He’ll visit France for D-Day ceremonies along with visits to American cemeteries there. He’ll then head to Vietnam to see firsthand the search for American remains.
“They are opening up three new search areas, and we are going to go there for two days. Then we’ll go to Laos for two days,” Koutz said. “They are really coming around on identifying remains when they find them. There are still boxes and boxes of remains. I want to be sure this does not end until every prisoner of war or missing in action is identified and brought home.”
Most of the World War II vets who led the American Legion when Koutz joined are gone now. And bringing in new members — such as those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan — isn’t easy. Many returning soldiers, especially those from the National Guard, were already raising young families before they deployed.
“We’re trying to be more family-oriented and have things for the kids,” Koutz said. “And we need to do more PR. We need to let people know what we do. Once people know about us, it will be easier to bring these younger guys and gals in. In 2019 we will celebrate our 100th anniversary. Our goal is to reach 3.3 million members by then,” he said.