Hit Financially By COVID-19, American Legion Posts Innovate To Survive

Fernando Sanchez warms up attendees at American Legion Post 397's comedy night. (Robert Garrova/American Homefront)

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The meeting halls and lounges of American Legion posts across the country serve as a community hub for veterans and their families. But during the pandemic, many have had to shut their doors to retired service members looking to grab a cheap drink or rent out the hall for an event.

That has meant a big hit to some posts' bottom line.

On a recent Saturday night, comedian Scott Shimamoto thanked the audience for coming out to a comedy night in the parking lot of Monterey Park, California's Post 397.

The physically distanced outdoor show came complete with a stage, emcee, DJ, and taco stand.

"I know it's been difficult for them because they're used to having a big audience here and having their friends, veterans," said John Padilla, who helped organize the event. He's not a veteran, but he's been coming to this post since his friend, a Vietnam Vet, first invited him.

"Their daily life, their routine, has been disrupted," Padilla said.

Gabriel Suarez has been commander of this post for the past decade. It's got about 70 members now.

Pre-pandemic, Suarez said this post would host parties almost every weekend. It's the kind of place veterans could grab a drink, enjoy a meal, and swap stories over a game of billiards.

It's been hard not having community gatherings as often as they used to. Suarez motions to a water feature that has gone dry.

"Every veteran would sit right there and just listen to the babbling of the water until they fell asleep, and most of them did with a cigar in their hand," Suarez said. "It's just those little things, we provide a home environment."

The festivities were all about camaraderie. But they were also about keeping the lights on.

The comedy night was billed as a fundraiser, with the money helping the post compensate for the hit it's taken since the pandemic froze bar sales, hall rentals, and other sources of income.

(Robert Garrova/American Homefront)

"There's a big necessity for fundraising for our building," Suarez said. "We need to keep our building open so we're able to do the food banks, so we're able to invite our comics out tonight.

And Post 397 is not alone in its need to raise money.

"We have about 423 posts in California, and I'm fairly certain ... that a good 20 percent of them are in danger of financially having to close their doors due to the losses that they've incurred due to this pandemic," said Paul Brown, Adjutant for the American Legion Department of California.

Brown said what local posts in California are feeling is probably not too much different from the restaurant industry, especially as they feel the whiplash from state reopening guidance which has changed over the last several months.

"They're trying to adapt, they're trying to modify, they're trying to overcome the situation, survive it," Brown said.

It's hard to get a sense of just how much the pandemic has affected the more than 12,000 posts across the country. But in October, The American Legion National Executive Committee announced the Mission Blue Post Assistance Program. Eligible posts can apply for $1,000 grants which "must be used exclusively to pay current or past due rent, mortgage, utilities, and insurance."

"We are definitely concerned about it," said Jeff Stoffer, director of media and communications at the Legion's headquarters in Indiana.

"A lot of posts have just basically converted what they were doing towards different purposes," Stoffer added.

That's meant comedy nights, or even a drive-in movie theater at a post in Hollywood.

"We've had to be innovative, we've had to figure out how to modernize a lot of American Legions," said Michael Hjelmstad, vice commander of Hollywood's Post 43."The American Legion, historically, is not real fast to take to change and new technology and things like that, so this has kind of forced us to really step up in ways that would have taken us a lot longer."

And that, Hjelmstad said, may be one silver lining on the cloud of this pandemic.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.