Meeting scheduled here on Saturday
HOT SPRINGS – The list of 13 “charges” leveled against Hot Springs American Legion Battle Mountain Post 71 Adjutant Don Ackerman by the State American Legion Executive Committee are “bogus,” according to Post 71 member Ed Harvey.
“I was present at several of the incidents that are mentioned against Don,” said Harvey, a Navy veteran who also is a member of the Post 71 Legion Riders, “and I can tell you directly that those items are untrue – completely untrue.”
The State American Legion Commander Rick MacDonald has called a special meeting of the Department Executive Session at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 14, at the Hot Springs Post, with the express consideration of the “cancellation, suspension or revocation” of the Post 71 charter, which was established in 1920.
The State Legion forwarded a list of 13 incidences that are alleged to have taken place and requested that Post 71 address the concerns. At an Aug. 12 meeting, each of the incidences was discussed, according to Post 71 Commander Bud Jenniges, and a unanimous vote was made to take no action against Ackerman.
A letter from the State Adjutant Denny Brenden to local post members said the meeting was being done to “curtail damage done to the organization,” by “the public conduct of the Post 71 Adjutant Don Ackerman.”
Jenniges added that Ackerman had volunteered to resign at the Aug. 12 meeting, which was also defeated unanimously by the members in attendance.
Brenden’s letter states that as no action was taken by the post, the state is forced to consider revoking the Hot Springs charter.
Attempts to contact past state commander Byron Callies and current State Commander Rick MacDonald were unsuccessful. A message requesting comment from State Adjutant and Public Relations Officer Denny Brenden was not returned.
So why is the State hierarchy attempting to discipline Don Ackerman, by pressuring Post 71?
“I think they are trying to get back at Don because he has caused them some grief,” Harvey said. “He’s outspoken; he doesn’t tuck his tail and just say ‘Yes Sir’ and go along. I don’t think they like that.”
Harvey said that he believes the entire list of charges are the result of the VA asking the State American Legion to quiet Ackerman.
“Even though they (the State Legion) say the VA has never contacted them – they have,” Harvey said. E-mails provided to the Hot Springs Star seem to bear out that there was conversation between the VA and the State American Legion relating to Ackerman, although the content of that conversation is unknown.
Here are first-hand responses, by people in attendance at the incidents, to several of the charges that have been made against Ackerman, by the State American Legion. Not all of the charges are addressed, only those where there was a person in attendance that spoke to the Star.
Charge 3 - Summer Convention incident
Many of the charges stem from this past June’s State American Legion Convention in Rapid City. Although Harvey said that he and his wife Carol went to the convention, they were not in attendance when Black Hills Health Care director Stephen DiStasio spoke at the convention.
But Fall River County Legion Commander Angie Koch was.
“I was in the back of the room,” Koch said, “and so was Don. When DiStasio spoke he (Ackerman) kind of threw up his hands a couple times and then left. He never verbally interrupted him at all.”
Koch said that she feels that after hearing the same line of lies that have been coming from the VA for the past few years, Ackerman probably just had enough.
Harvey said that he left because in his words, “Inviting Steve DiStasio to speak at that convention, given what he has done to the veterans in this part of the state was a personal insult to me; it really was. I imagine Don may have felt the same way.”
Charge 6 - Told the Legion Riders that the group was disbanded
Another of the ‘charges’ leveled against Ackerman states he told all the Legion Riders that he had disbanded the group.
“I was there for that,” Harvey said, “and it is not true. Don never had that authority.”
According to Harvey, the Legion Riders – a membership organization for Legion members at the State and Post levels who enjoy riding motorcycles - had been recognized by the South Dakota American Legion, with Dennis Edwards of Rapid City as its leader and Ackerman as second-in-command. At the June meeting, the state American Legion voted to no longer support the Legion Riders or be responsible for them.
“Their excuse was that it was a question of insurance liability,” Harvey said. “They said they didn’t want the responsibility.”
That seems logical.
“Sure, except that it’s in the Legion Riders charter that each individual is to have his or her own motorcycle, that it is to be insured and that the individual is required to have proof of insurance,” Harvey said. “I don’t know for a fact what drove their decision but they said it was insurance.”
After the decision was made, Harvey said that Edwards left it to Ackerman to tell the membership. Harvey said that Ackerman told them, “the State no longer supports the Legion Riders. His words. Not ‘disbanded; no longer supports.’”
Charge 13 – State Legion Parade; and Charge 7 – No White Hats
A continuation of the Legion Riders discussion lends itself to two other charges – that Ackerman caused a ruckus during the parade in Rapid City at the state convention and his quote of “No White Hats at my post.”
Carol Harvey said that after the word came down about the Legion Riders not being supported at the state level, the bikers were told they would be placed in the middle of the pack at the parade.
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“That’s just a slap in the face,” Carol Harvey said. “The Legion Riders always follow the color guard.”
Ed Harvey added that the reason is two-fold: People attending the parade enjoy seeing the motorcycles decorated with flags and motorcycles are air-cooled engines.
“We need to be someplace where we can keep air going over the bikes – engines, clutches, brakes and more,” he said. “Being in the middle of a parade is really hard on bikes, particularly the Harleys.”
The option of not riding was discussed, but Harvey said a person from the State American Legion said that it was important that they ride. “We asked Don and he said that it was not his ride or his parade; that he was going to do whatever the Rapid City leader decided to do.”
Negotiations to have the Legion Riders participate included – according to Ed Harvey – a promise from the State American Legion to explain its position of non support for the Riders.
He said about 30 riders stuck around after the parade for the end of the convention to hear from the State.
“Then they just closed the meeting and started to leave,” he said. “We asked them to speak with us and they said that they didn’t have time to speak to us. They got the bikes for the parade and then just walked off.”
According to Harvey, it was then that Ackerman said ‘No White Hats (headgear worn by State American Legion personnel) will be welcome at my post.’
Harvey and Jenniges agreed Ackerman doesn’t have the authority to limit attendance at the Hot Springs post. “He was upset at the way we were treated, certainly,” Harvey said.
Charge 8 - Selling Post Votes for State Commander
Harvey chuckled when he read this charge. Both he and Koch attended the State Convention as voting delegates from the Hot Springs post and both have clear recollections of the lead-up to the vote.
Harvey said that before the vote, a 20-minute caucus was held to decide how Hot Springs would cast its eight votes. “Don had asked both candidates (MacDonald, from Hermosa and Fred Nelson of Spearfish) as a member of the Legion Riders, what they would do for the Riders,” Harvey said.
According to both Harvey and Koch, Ackerman declined to offer any advice, but shared what he knew of each candidate. “He said we could vote for one guy, vote for the other or split our vote; those were the choices,” Harvey recalled.
Harvey said that as Nelson was more familiar to them and was a member of the Legion Riders, the Hot Springs contingent each decided individually to cast ballots for him.
“Don actually voted after we did and made it unanimous,” Koch recalled.
Charge 12 - Spreading rumors about a new post commander
Ackerman was also accused by the State of spreading the rumor that MacDonald was appointing former State Commander – and Hot Springs resident – Kerwin “Pee Wee” Douhit as post commander, presumably after the post’s charter had been revoked and then re-instated under new leadership.
Harvey said he didn’t know about this charge, but Koch stated that she had heard that Douthit had been approached about being post commander, but that she heard it from a different person than Ackerman.
“Pee Wee was the one who told me,” Koch said. “He told me two weeks ago. He said that he had been asked to take charge.”
According to Koch, Douthit told her that at State Commander MacDonald’s homecoming celebration on Aug. 17 that the commander had asked him if he wanted to take charge.
Koch said at a meeting with Post 71 leadership a short time later, when confronted, the state leaders denied making the request, “but they did,” she said. “They asked him to take charge. He told me that sitting in my office at the VA.”
Koch said that the revelation leads her to believe that decisions were being made before anyone had been talked to in Hot Springs. “This is a witch hunt,” she said. “Their lies are coming out now and they are getting tangled in them.”
She added that as the Legion Commander for Fall River County, she should have been contacted about the entire action, but to date has not been.
“I oversee the Hot Springs, Oelrichs and Edgemont posts,” she said. “I am in the chain of command between Bud and our District Commander, but I haven’t gotten a phone call, an e-mail; nothing about this and I wonder why? They (the state) have all of my information.”
“That’s another reason that I am ticked off,” she said.
Harvey shared a copy of a letter that he has sent to National American Legion Commander Dan Dellinger, expressing his disappointment over how the legion is handling the situation. A copy was also sent to MacDonald.
“I told him in the letter that I haven’t found anything that the South Dakota State American Legion does for veterans, there is no value added here on their part,” Harvey said.
Harvey states that he, personally, would be willing to embrace forming a non-profit veterans group not associated with the American Legion in Hot Springs, should the state decide to revoke the Post 71 charter.
“There are many good programs going on here,” his letter states, “most of these programs can be traced back to Don Ackerman, whose leadership has encouraged people like myself to become involved.”
Harvey also said that the controversy has been a boon for membership.
“I bet we have picked up 15 or so new members – to the Legion and the Legion Riders – since it kicked up. People around town are talking about this and we have people joining who want to get involved.”