As Americans in November recall the sacrifices made by U.S. armed forces, Randolph Metrocom veterans groups have reopened facilities after COVID-19 closures.
American Legion Post 667 in Universal City started operating at 50% capacity Oct. 23 once Bexar County officials gave local bar establishments the OK to resume business during the pandemic.
The building at 504 Bowie Drive is one of the three veteran-catered canteens based in the Metrocom area.
Others are Post 593, 326 Legion Drive West in Converse, and Cibolo Valley Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8315 at 1000 FM 78 in Schertz.
The organizations fill a void for many of the region’s warriors, past and present.
“What veterans need is someone to show they care,” said James Johns, American Legion and VFW service officer and a retired Army sergeant.
Efforts must also be increased to recruit new members, he added.
To join a legion, vets must still be active in the armed forces or honorably discharged.
VFW eligibility requires participation in a war, campaign or expedition on foreign soil or hostile waters.
Like most, the Legion has felt COVID-19’s pinch financially.
An official estimated the Universal City canteen has seen a $50,000 reduction in food and beverage sales this year, which go toward donations to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Eagle Scouts.
Those funds also send high school students to Texas Boys State, a mock government to train teens about civics.
The pandemic also prevented Legion volunteers from visiting vets at the Audie L. Murphy VA Hospital, Johns said.
“A lot of us were fighting against the (canteen closure), because they grouped the American Legions and the VFWs with the bars,” he said. “And, it’s a lot more than a bar. It’s a veteran’s support place.”
Of late, military officials have expressed concern COVID-19 pandemic-induced stress might contribute to an already alarming rate of suicides among active-duty service members. Reports recently revealed an increase to 25.9 per 100,000 troops in 2019, up from 24.9 per 100,000 the year prior.
The pace has steadily risen since 2014, officials said.
Retired Marine Master Sgt. Pat Rozelle ran the local “Buddy Check” program during a fall event. Under the initiative, calls are made to veterans to verify their well-being.
“Some of them just want to talk and are lonely,” Rozelle said. “Some of them need help, so we refer them to the chaplains and the service officers.”
Johns makes it a priority to communicate with those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. He believes constant checkups can prevent suicides.
“I’d rather have someone call me and keep me awake all night long than get a phone call from someone saying that a veteran killed themselves because he didn’t have someone to reach out to,” Johns said.
Retired Army Chief Warrant Officer Elaine Goliday battled the feeling of isolation after the shutdown of the canteen, which she has frequented 11 years. The place was a sanctuary for her to discuss her experiences with peers.
“And, we don’t have the avenue to get it out,” said Goliday, a Converse resident. “When you are cooped up in the house, it is not fun. If you live by yourself, it’s worse. (Veterans) understand and relate to what you’ve done.”
As the youngest veteran associated with the Legion’s local chapter, Johns, 41, aims to recruit fresh-faced service members and assist others in dealing with physical and mental anguish.
He noted younger vets only make up 5% to 10% of the entire chapter of 300.
To attract additional numbers, Johns said he has to change the canteen’s aesthetics and offer new music.
“The American Legion is going to be nonexistent if we don’t get the younger vets in here,” he said. “We have to step up our recruitment and adapt. We got the older veterans who are like, ‘Ah, I don’t like that crazy music that they listen to. They are too loud and rowdy.’ But, what they don’t understand is that we got to bring those people in, or eventually, the American Legion is going to fold, and they are not going to have any members.”
Some things are returning to almost normal.
For more information on Post 667, call 210-658-3731 or visit https://missingman667.com/.
To reach the Converse post, call 210-658-1111 or go to www.post593.org.
For the VFW, call 210-658-6325 or visit vfwpost8315.com.