BOSTON — Three months ago, John P. (Jake) Comer was helping set housing policy for a city of 85,000 people. Today, he's the leading advocate for an organization of nearly 3 million.
"It's a weird and eerie feeling and a job that I have really come to respect and enjoy," said Comer, the new national commander of the American Legion, the country's largest veterans' organization.
Comer, 55, of Quincy, Mass., was home recently for a celebration in his honor. About 300 legion leaders representing the 50 states came with him for the three-day party.
After that, Comer says, comes the tough part of his job: helping persuade Congress to stop cutting veterans' programs and start supporting increased aid to Nicaragua's Contra rebels.
Comer's other goals as commander are to increase the legion's membership from 2.8 million to 3 million and to raise $1 million for the Child Welfare Foundation, a legion charity that supports programs ranging from the March of Dimes to services for missing and abused children.
Protecting veterans' benefits at a time when Congress is trying to cut the budget deficit is a tough but vital job, Comer says, pointing to statistics showing that by the year 2000, there will be 9 million veterans over the age of 65.
More Will Need Care
More than 115,000 veterans will need daily care by the turn of the century, contrasted with 40,000 in 1983, Comer said.
Comer realizes that veterans' groups are perceived as pro-military.
"The answer to that is that the American Legion and the other organizations are made up of men who went to war and saw their friends die defending America," Comer said. "For that reason, we don't want the country to have to fight another one."
The legion's membership is at a 37-year high of 2.83 million, and Comer hopes to eclipse the 3-million mark by persuading more Vietnam veterans to join. His replacement as commander will be a Vietnam veteran.
"It's their organization now," said Comer, who served as an Air Force sergeant in the Korean War. "The rest of us are getting up there in years, and the Vietnam guys are getting into their 40s, settling down and beginning to take over for us."
Comer took a leave of absence as chairman of the Quincy Housing Authority when elected the legion's 70th commander in August. When his stint is up, he plans to return to Quincy and resume his housing board work.