VFW and American Legion leaders speak on how their groups have kept in contact during pandemic
With bingo nights on hold for two months, veterans groups have had to find ways to keep in touch.
From Zoom to Facebook, Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts have been reaching out to members to take care of them mentally and physically at a time of stay-at-home and socially distanced life.
Marc Garduno, the VFW state commander and commander of Camden Post 3238, said many veterans rely on VFW for socializing. Because the governor has restricted gatherings to 10 or fewer, they have had to cancel regular meetings and activities.
To keep the socializing alive, he sent a directive to all post commanders to actively engage with the members and assess the support they have at home.
“Some of our members, they are older. They may not have the ability to move very freely and some of them might not have a family support structure anywhere nearby,” Garduno said. “Just because you can’t have a meeting and your buildings might not be open, pick up the phone and call your members to make sure they are doing okay.”
Kent Bacon, commander of VFW Smyrna Post 8801, said they are making phone calls, sending letters and holding regular meetings over Zoom.
“We ask them if they need anything. We will drive by and drop off something they need,” he said. “It’s not the nicest way to do it, but they sure do appreciate it.”
Although social media and video conference calls have been a popular way to stay connected, Bacon said many of the veterans don’t have access to those. It has made it hard for him to reach every member personally.
Bacon said they have been doing “phone trees,” in which he calls a couple members who then reach out to other members.
“It’s hard not being able to drive over and see them. There’s so many of them. I’m sure we aren’t reaching them all,” he said.
Garduno said many of his veterans rely on pick-up vans and buses for getting groceries and pharmaceuticals, but transportation has either stopped or limited operations. He wants to make sure they have a way of obtaining their essentials.
“By all accounts, the feedback I received was very positive and everyone is being covered in one way or another,” Garduno said.
VFW’s Unmet Needs is helping those who have financial problems with grants to military families who have run into unexpected difficulties as a result of deployment or military-related activity or injury.
Since the coronavirus has caused many Americans to struggle, it has expanded to help during the crisis.
“We are helping those who may find themselves in a financial pinch,” he said. “[The grants] are available for members, to help get them through tough times.”
Dave Strawbridge, commander of American Legion Canal Post 25, started contacting his members as soon as the governor began shutting things down.
“I immediately reached out via email, Facebook and phone to all of our 267 members, letting them know to start preparing in case the state would go into a lockdown,” he said.
He started a weekly “buddy check” to encourage his members to check in on the mental and physical well-being of one another through social media, email, phone calls or texts.
Strawbridge said he has been in touch with their World War II veterans and others who weren’t healthy.
“[We are] letting them know they are not alone and that they have a support network that is ready to help them with whatever they need,” he said. “Honestly, our World War II veterans who are more susceptible to COVID-19, they already have a support system in place with their family members.”
Strawbridge said his post has received requests for van service. Normally, their van will pick people up for medical appointments.
“Unfortunately, because of the strict COVID-19 requirement, we have been unable to provide that service. Once that restriction gets lifted, we have requests to get area veterans to their VA appointments,” he said.
Strawbridge said his American Legion post is heavily involved in Stop Soldier Suicide. With the U.S. unemployment rate at or exceeding 14.7% — the highest since the Great Depression according to the Washington Post — he said it’s more important now than ever for organizations, like American Legion, to support veterans.
“I think in today’s world, veterans’ service organizations need to step up more than ever to support our veterans,” he said. “We need to be there for our fellow veterans. We are proud to be a big part of our community.”
Memorial Day reminds communities every year of the lives lost in war and the people who served the country. Bacon said it’s important to remember the families behind the men and women in uniform.
The Smyrna commander said some of the people deployed during the 1950s didn’t think about the families of the soldiers like they do now.
“When you deploy, your family does too. Someone has to take care of the family, so someone stays back,” Bacon said. “I don’t think they get enough credit.”
Strawbridge is reminded of a Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
“We go to the cemeteries to remember and reflect and never forget our friends and family members who were buried there,” the American Legion commander said. “Some of them might have made sacrifices through conflict, but we go up there to ensure they are not forgotten.”