by ZACH KAYSER
While the pandemic chokes out the primary revenue stream of veterans groups — their bar-restaurants — the members of the local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars are taking steps to limit the spread among their ranks of aging veterans.
In a written memo to American Legion members in Minnesota, Judge Advocate Greg Colby laid out the stakes of their new epic conflict: the survival of the veterans themselves, and the citizens they once shielded with their lives.
“As we defended our fellow citizens during the wars of the 20th century and the challenges of the 21st century, so now do we need to act smart and safe to protect our citizens once again … let’s not forget our friends and fellow vets living in nursing homes,” he wrote. “A lot of them remain at risk. Let’s do our part to help them stay healthy and get through this national emergency.”
That attitude extends all the way down to Winona’s Leon J. Wetzel Post 9. Its Veterans Center, on Sarnia street overlooking Lake Winona, contains a meeting hall as well as the struggling bar. The dual nature of Post 9, a veterans organization as well as a nonprofit business trying to earn revenue, is evident in the rack of military rifles behind the bar. There they rest under lock and key in between stints as implements used for Legion ceremonial duties.
Post adjutant Sam Sasser said sales in 2020 were down 53 percent from the prior year, but the Legion was kept afloat by outside financial help. Post 9 obtained Payroll Protection Plan (PPP) loans from the federal government, as well as three $10,000 grants through the state and county.
Auxiliary groups affiliated with the club like the Sons of the American Legion, the Legion Riders and the veteran burial detail had all contributed as well, he said.
Without the assistance, Post 9 would have still survived, but it would have completely wiped out their reserves, Sasser said.
“With the extra help, and our cautious approach to this, we’ve gotten by quite well,” he said.
No members had contracted COVID while inside the post building, despite several of them coming down with the sickness in their “outside lives” Sasser said. The afflicted members have recovered.
“We’ve been fortunate that way,” he said.
The club on Sarnia takes COVID precautions very seriously, Sasser said. Half of the chairs were removed in order to comply with the state mandate to operate at only 50 percent capacity. Those chairs that remain are spaced six feet apart. If someone comes in maskless, they’ll receive a stern reaction from the bar staff, he said.
“We’ve had a couple people complain, and it’s like, ‘Okay, if you don’t like it, leave’” he said.
Mark Maloney is vice commander for Area One, the American Legion administrative division for the state of Minnesota that includes Winona. The story of Post 9 is tragically common across the district.
The situation is also dire for individual veterans, Maloney said. “Buddy checks,” where Legion members contact each other to check their welfare, have increased in frequency since the start of the pandemic, Maloney said. “This is a rough time for a lot of veterans, when they can’t go and talk with another veteran,” he said.
Despite all the stressors, in Maloney’s view the American Legion was being underutilized as a way of connecting veterans with each other and with COVID help. Their empty Legion halls could easily be used as mass vaccination sites, he said.
Paul Gady, Commander of VFW Post Neville - Lien 1287, said they work with the Legion through a joint veterans council that includes them both, including work on combating the coronavirus.
Like Legion Post 9, VFW Post 1287 received PPP loans from the federal government, Gady said. The post used it to help pay the salaries of the bar manager and several bartenders, he said. Members also donated out of their own pockets to aid Post 1287 through the rough patch. Without the help, the post bar/restaurant might not exist now, Gady said. “I don’t know if we even would be open anymore if we hadn't gotten them, especially the [PPP loan] last spring,” he said.
The VFW has already lost several members to the virus, Gady said. Attitudes among the members reflect those in the general population: some skeptical of the virus’ threat, others taking it seriously. “It’s still going on, so obviously the risk is still out there,” Gady said.
The club has taken COVID precautions, including a mask mandate when patrons are not sitting at a table, and removal of chairs to help promote social distancing. The electronic bingo and pull tab machines, a Legion and VFW staple, are frequently sanitized to prevent transmission. The VFW-sponsored baseball team had their season canceled last year, but Gady hopes this year will be on again.
Gady agreed with Colby’s assertion that veterans fighting the pandemic is the same as their prior service.
“We just hope that everything works out for the best,” he said.