Pre-COVID activity returning to Legions

ADDISON COUNTY — In March of 2020, American Legion posts across Addison County were forced to figure out how to continue serving local veterans while creating the necessary distance to keep everyone safe from COVID-19. Two-and-a-half years later, as most local Legion posts are enjoying a return to some traditional, fully in-person events, some veterans organizations are continuing programs they pivoted to during the pandemic, such as “buddy checks.” 

Throughout the pandemic, protecting each other from COVID-19 posed a challenge to meeting with one another in person. As a result, American Legion Post 19 in Bristol started a program called buddy checks to keep tabs on the wellbeing of veterans in the county when local Legion members could no longer see their fellow veterans regularly. 

Post 19 Commander Ron LaRose explained that Adjutant Alan Smith would call local veterans to see how they were doing and ask if the post could provide any help.

“He knows all of the veterans in the area, whether they belong to the post or not, and he keeps track of them, making sure there’s not any issues emotionally or mentally,” LaRose said of Smith. “He’s making sure they have what they need and are getting where they need to go.” 

Buddy checks have continued at Post 19 even as in-person gatherings have returned. LaRose said these calls are a good way to check in on the mental wellbeing of local veterans, which is a priority at Post 19. 

“We can be aware of the veterans that might be struggling a little bit so that we can just be a voice, be a shoulder to lean on,” he said. “We stress that at all of our meetings.” 

Bristol’s Post 19 has also continued to offer use of a Virtual Living Room, or VLR, a space was set up just a month before the start of the pandemic and gives veterans throughout the state a way to remotely conduct telehealth appointments with their doctors at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction. 

The room has soundproof doors and an acoustic ceiling, suited for veterans to log on and set up a video call with their healthcare provider.  It opened in February of 2020 and was originally intended to alleviate the burden of driving across the state to access healthcare services. Turns out the VLR offered an added benefit when COVID-19 hit Addison County and meeting remotely was a way to stay safe from the virus. 

LaRose said veterans are still able to call Post 19 and make an appointment to use the room, though the service hasn’t seen as much use as originally hoped. 

“The VA is doing the best they can to get the word out about it,” he said. “I think we’ve had maybe six or 10 people use it.”  

While they’ve continued some successful pandemic-inspired programs, local Legion posts have also enjoyed a return to fully in-person gatherings. Brian Gebo, commander of American Legion Post 14 in Vergennes, said the post is currently trying to build back up its programming that withered under COVID-19 restrictions. 

“I think we are in a serious rebuilding stage after the pandemic. We tried to keep going the major events that we could, but in reality the post kind of shut down during COVID-19,” he said. 

Post 14 has seen an increase in attendance at recent dances and bingo events, and Gebo said the post was happy this past spring to bring back the Memorial Day parade, which is typically the largest of its kind in the state. 

“That was something that we felt we needed to do. We got the parade back and continued with the fireworks in town and getting the community engaged again,” he said. 

The Vergennes post is still trying to get back to pre-pandemic levels of programming, but Gebo said the post is glad to be able to host in-person gatherings again for veterans and community members.

“We’ve had absolutely outstanding attendance at those events. People are hungry to get back out there, and so we’re trying to make sure we’re offering those events for the community and of course for our veterans,” he said. 

Post 19 in Bristol has also appreciated a return to fully in-person operations. LaRose said retired community members often use the space and have enjoyed being able to spend time at the Legion again. 

“They come to play tickets and socialize, and so when we opened back up they were right back in the routine again,” he said. 

LaRose said opening the Legion up last year was also important for the community because the Legion hall is a space often used for programs like Boy Scout and staff meetings, as well as other community events. 

“The Legion in many small communities is the center for a lot of activities, not just for veterans,” he explained. “It is a focal point in our community.” 

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