John D. Dowdell was elected recently as commander of the American Legion in the District of Columbia, something that wouldn't attract Metro Scene's attention except that Dowdell is:

*The first black ever to be chosen as the legion's D.C. departmental commander.

*One of very few Vietnam War veterans to become commander of a statewide legion organization, still dominated nationally by World War II and Korean vets.

It gives a twinge to write that Dowdell is "the first black" to rise in this mostly black city to a high honor in the American Legion, formed shortly after World War I. I thought, or hoped, we had gotten over "the first black" syndrome when I reported in 1966 that the since-deceased George E.C. Hayes became -- here's the phrase again -- the first black to serve on the board of directors of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. (It was so revolutionary that the story ran on the front page.)

Dowdall has been a member of the George S. Patton Jr. Tank Corps Post of the legion for seven years and its commander for two years. He also serves nationally on the legion's law-and-order committee.

Dowdall is a decorated armored corps veteran of Vietnam who has worked for 23 years for the U.S. Postal Service.

As commander, Dowdell presides over 41 American Legion posts with a total membership of 4,100. His goal is to recruit more members, notably Vietnam vets who have not been attracted to legion activity.