In normal times, about two dozen veterans get their only good meal of the day when they eat lunch together at American Legion Post 267, in Ormond Beach. During the pandemic, however, that meal was canceled for four of the past six months before the post was able to reopen again, on New Britain Avenue.
It’s just one example of the pandemic’s financial and emotional toll on veterans and on the organizations that support them.
“Being a single guy that lives alone, not having the meals affected me,” said Jerry Gomes, a Vietnam veteran who is also on the executive committee of Post 267. “This was my normal lunch, been that way for 10 years. When you live totally alone — I live in a 10-by-10 room — when I can get out and see people and just say hello, it’s a bonus.”
Camaraderie, for many, is just as important as the food.
Many veterans feel ostracized and can't talk to nonveterans about their troubles, but the experience is much different at a gathering of veterans.
“They’ll say, ‘I know what you’re talking about. The same thing happened to me,’” said Jim Bowers, Vietnam veteran who is now commander for American Legion District 17, which includes 14 posts in Volusia, Flagler and Putnam counties. “People are finally able to be accepted.”
Keith Tremblay, commander of the Veterans of Foreign War Post 8696, said the building on Old Kings Road in Palm Coast is a “safe place.”
“War veterans usually don’t talk about it,” said Tremblay, who was in the Navy for seven years, including five years on submarines. “It’s a painful memory for them. But when they get around guys who were in it with them, they can talk about it. My father was in World War II, and the only story he ever told me, I pressed him for it before he passed away.”
Even though the VFW Post 8696 building is open, many are too nervous about the pandemic to visit. Over 60% of the membership is over 60 years old, Tremblay said. But those who do attend are able to feel connected.
“A lot of our members, this is the only place to go,” said John Darrow, a Vietnam veteran who manages the canteen for VFW Post 8696. “A lot are widowers, and their families are up north. It’s very important to these people. The socializing prevents a lot of mental disease.”
Tremblay added: “Emotionally, it’s needed. You have to have it.”
The pandemic temporarily closed many veteran services organizations, and some remain closed, including the Disabled American Veterans office on Florida Park Drive, in Palm Coast. Ernie Morris, of DAV Chapter 86, said the Veterans Administration no longer allows the DAV to transport veterans to medical appointments, and volunteers are often in vulnerable populations and unable to help.
“I’m frustrated, discouraged,” Morris said. “I did 24 years in the Navy, and I’m fully retired now. I’m disabled, and the main thing I do to pass my time is I help veterans get their benefits. … Like everyone else, you reach the point where you get a little depressed over it.”
Each year, Chapter 86 gives about 700 rides to veterans, but now they’re having to do their appointments by phone or video.
“Veterans are very understanding of what’s going on. For the most part, veterans have adapted and overcome."
DAVID LYDON, Flagler County veteran services officer
Flagler County Veteran Services Officer David Lydon also coordinates medical benefits for veterans and says his own video appointments with a physical therapist sometimes feel “counterintuitive.”
“It’s kind of checking a box that they’re treating you, not the full treatment,” he said. However, many veterans have shown their resilience.
“Veterans are very understanding of what’s going on,” Lydon said. “For the most part, veterans have adapted and overcome. I’m very pleasantly surprised.”
Donations and funding
While many individuals are adapting, some organizations’ financial opportunities have been lost for good because of the pandemic. Many had to cancel fundraisers, including American Legion Post 267’s golf tournament that typically brings in about $12,000; the post lost an additional $15,000 in fundraising opportunities, bringing the total to $27,000. That means all the causes supported by the post — including Boys State and the Jerry Doliner Food Bank — won’t be getting their checks from the post this year.
The contributions are indicative of veterans' desire to help others. “Every penny of it goes out into the community here in our area,” said Frank Sterbling, commander of Post 267.
Meanwhile, VFW Post 8696 lost $5,000 worth of food when the restaurant had to close down. It has since reopened, but business is still down about 40%, Darrow said. Event organizers who rented the VFW hall in the past have also had to cancel most events, and that source of revenue is down about 90%, Tremblay said.
That financial hit comes as membership continues to decline. The VFW accepts only veterans who fought in foreign lands, and today, Post 8696 has 639 members, down from 1,200 five years ago. “Last year, I had to remove 150 members from our rolls because they had passed away,” Tremblay said.
Some VFW posts already have dissolved. Similarly, Bowers said five of the 14 American Legion posts in District 17 are in danger of closing permanently.
‘That’s what we’re here for’
“It’s very heartwarming to help the veterans, especially those that are really in hard times, that don’t have any family. That’s what we’re here for.”
TONI ELLSWORTH, American Legion Auxiliary president
Morris said he loves to serve veterans, and he’s not alone. Wayne Zack, of VFW Post 8696, said he helps to distribute day-old bread from supermarkets to veterans. Tremblay said he recently helped a veteran move furniture. The American Legion and VFW have helped to pay bills for families in need — whether they were veterans or not.
Toni Ellsworth is the president of the American Legion Auxiliary for District 17, and she looks forward to returning to the Emory L. Bennet Veterans Nursing Home in Daytona Beach to throw birthday parties and provide other activities for veterans.
“My heart is with the veterans, and I think these guys know that very well,” said Ellsworth, whose father and brother were Army veterans. “It’s very heartwarming to help the veterans, especially those that are really in hard times, that don’t have any family. That’s what we’re here for.”
Brian McMillan and his wife, Hailey, bought the Observer in 2023. Before taking on his role as publisher, Brian was the editor from 2010 to 2022, winning numerous awards for his column writing, photography and journalism, from the Florida Press Association.