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Florida veteran groups adapt after American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars posts close

American Legion Post 152 on Friday in Town 'n' Country. The post is under renovation while it's closed due to state stay-at-home orders. The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars are finding other ways to stay in touch with veterans and get them needed services. (MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE/Times/TNS)

Bruce Sitki entered the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10140 in Tampa this week to handle some administrative work. Typically, there would be at least 20 fellow veterans hanging out inside.

But that was before the world entered a pandemic. This time, there was no one to greet Sitki by name.

“It’s very disheartening,” Sitki said. “We don’t usually close for anything.”

Veteran service organization posts in Florida are shut down to abide by social-distancing measures, so leaders of the VFW and the American Legion are using digital tools and community service programs to keep veterans connected.

From Dade City to Ruskin, VFW posts in the organization’s 12th district in Florida have been organizing food deliveries for older members, making and distributing masks and offering financial aid to those who are unemployed, said Sitki, the District 12 commander. The district has about 3,400 members.

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Posts across the U.S. are following suit with their own projects, whether it’s getting supplies to veterans or answering questions about their benefits.

“For over 120 years, our posts have been the pillars of support in America’s communities, and this proves we’re not slowing up despite the adversity presented by this unique situation,” said national commander William Schmitz in a statement.

The local and national posts also have been checking in with members, calling them or video-chatting to stay connected.

So is the American Legion.

For more than a year, the American Legion has run its buddy check program as a way to organize outreach over the phone to members across the country.

But recently, the Legion has updated its scripts for the program, including wording like this: “The coronavirus is a global pandemic that has changed life as we know it. I’m calling to see if there is anything that your American Legion post can assist you or your family with.”

Bruce Carl, commander of American Legion Florida District 15, said members in Hillsborough, Hernando and West Pasco counties have appreciated the check-ins, and it’s led to a higher number of membership renewals. District 15 has about 5,200 members.

State stay-at-home orders have hit Legion fundraising activities hard, Carl said. Picnics and golf tournaments that raise funds for the community are no longer feasible.

Yet posts continue to run their blood donor programs and food pantries in partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Local Legion motorcycle groups also have gotten creative, collecting $25 for riding 22 miles on their motorcycles or even in their cars, with proceeds going toward veteran suicide prevention programs.

The high national rate of veteran suicides in recent years — at one point losing 22 veterans a day — is reason enough to stay connected with members, even as physical gathering spaces have closed, Carl said.

But members so far have remained optimistic and grateful for their network, he added.

Local Legion posts have used the lockdown time to remodel, refurbish and sanitize posts in preparation for their eventual re-opening, Carl said. And they’ve continued paying canteen and kitchen employees.

“I think we’ll be stronger for it,” Carl said.

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© 2020 the Tampa Bay Times