Veterans groups find themselves struggling in pandemic

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Members of the Williston Park American Legion Post 144 called for additional funding last week. (Photo by Samuele Petruccelli)

As the coronavirus pandemic wanes, veterans groups on the North Shore say they are still struggling financially.

American Legion organizations across Long Island said they are barely surviving after months without any income from hosting community events or receiving substantial government relief.

Among those struggling is American Legion Post 144 in Williston Park.

Bob Guastella was a post commander and now works as a trustee and oversees facilities for Post 144. He canceled his own salary at the start of the pandemic and has helped organize its finances with an accountant, staying afloat by rotating the payment of bills.

“Every month he would have National Grid, PSEG, the gardener, the water bill and all of the bills that would come in,” Guastella said. “He would go – let’s pay National Grid this week and we’ll pay the gardener this month, and next month we’ll pay the other three.”

Combined with this strategy, the post cut back on certain recurring monthly payments with the help of the mayor of Williston Park. Dumpster collection, normally $500 monthly, was canceled and garbage was collected by the village, since the quantity was minimal without hosting any gatherings.

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Now, with physical distancing at gatherings becoming less restrictive, Guastella is still limited in the size of events he is able to host given the shrunken size of a volunteer staff.

“There’s nobody anymore,” Guastella said. “All I’m asking for is a little bit more help, but right now I know they can’t afford it.”

John Incremona, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5253 in Albertson, described a similar financial situation.

“We’re hurting,” Incremona said. For his post’s rainy-day fund, “instead of that staying or going up a little bit, that got depleted.”

“There’s an expression as they say … I have to rob Peter to pay Paul,” Incremona said. “But right now, Pete has got no money left and Paul still wants his money.”

Artie Adair, chaplain of VFW Post 5253, described the contrast in experiences of typical employees and members of his post.

“If you were unemployed from work, you got the assistance. You got unemployment from your state, and you got the federal extra money,” Adair said. “We’re unemployed, no money is coming in, gotta pay the bills, gotta pay the heat, gotta pay the garbage, gotta pay everything, where was the help?”

For both posts, Guastella and Incremona said attempts to get state or federal aid were unsuccessful. The American Legion’s application for PPP loans was found not eligible on the basis that the post did not have employees, only volunteers.

“When I was drafted, we didn’t go down there and say ah, I don’t think you’re eligible to draft me,” Incremona said. “I appreciate the invite but I’m gonna leave because I’m not eligible to go there.”

State Sen. John Brooks (D-Seaford), who also serves as chairman of the Committee on Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs, is aware of the financial state of American Legion posts like 144 in Williston Park. In a statement to Blank Slate Media, Brooks illustrated his interest in exploring legislation that could expand utilization of American Legion and VFW posts to include additional public service capacities, allowing for direct grant funding from the state.

“Currently, the public and private balance of posts makes providing financial support a challenge,” Brooks said. “The activation of these sites as locations for elections, pre-kindergarten programs and other possibilities could alleviate Legion and VFW posts from a portion of their brick-and-mortar costs.”

American Legion posts across Long Island are believed to face similar financial threats, according to Guastella and Rob Robesch, a past Nassau County commander for the American Legion and the current membership coordinator for districts encompassing Staten Island, Brooklyn, Nassau, Suffolk and Queens.

“All of the posts are kind of in the same situation,” Robesch said. “Can’t open up, can’t rent it out, can’t make any money.”

Robesch estimated based on reports from sources across the state that close to 40 Legion posts were in danger of closing or liquidating their property.

This financial situation has translated to a growing view among some veterans that politicians have overlooked veterans in their district.

“They’re our politicians,” Adair said. “Why don’t they come and tell us, give us a call, say what can we do for you?”

In some cases, the resentment of politicians grew so great that they were not welcome at a Memorial Day parade. For Guastella and Williston Park Post 144, that meant no elected officials marching in the local parade.

“They’re all welcome to come and speak, but to march in a parade – no they don’t deserve that,” Guastella said. “There shouldn’t be any photo ops for people that don’t help you.”

“The only politician that we had in our parade is the man that deserves to be in there because he helped get the parade run,” Incremona said. “And that’s our mayor.”

He was referring to Mayor Paul Ehrbar, who has given strong support to his village’s American Legion post.

With state health restrictions becoming less limiting, Adair argued that local posts need monetary support now more than ever to make up for a year’s worth of lost income and added fixed bills.

“Why can’t we get some help for LIPA bills, National Grid, all the bills we have to try to keep our doors open?” Adair said. “Shouldn’t we be able to get some funds to pay back all the bills that we paid?”

State Sen. Anna Kaplan (D-Great Neck) said she recognized the hardship American Legion and VFW posts have endured, as well as their critical role in supporting veterans.

“Particularly given the fact that these non-profit organizations are not eligible to receive much of the emergency pandemic relief funding that has come out for small businesses, it’s so important that the community come together and rally around our heroes and make sure they can keep their doors open,” Kaplan said in an email to Blank Slate Media.

Guastella said he has already received offers to purchase the post’s property; a fate Adair says is inevitable without help.

“We’re not looking for five million dollars,” Incremona said. “I’ll take anything I can get.”

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