When I think of legions, I think of the bar. I recall many misspent hours at a couple of local legions in BC years ago, drinking beer and hanging out with the locals. There was nothing fancy about the bars. Once in a while, I’d even take the time to listen to an army veteran share a battlefield story.
Those were the days when many army veterans and their families and friends would still frequent the Legion. But times have changed. That was evident to me during my recent visit to the Regina’s Legion downtown. The Legion is facing challenging times financially. Revenues are down, but the demand for services that assist veterans in need is up.
The bar is closed due to COVID-19 and will now remain closed. The Legion’s little-visited museum will close, and the office space will relocate to another part of the building. Now services that assist homeless veterans are in danger of being cut.
I had the pleasure of sitting down for an interview with Jody Salway, Executive Director of the Regina Legion, and Ron Hitchcock, President of the Regina Legion. Also joining us was Clover, Jody’s service dog. The Regina Legion 001 (known as branch number one) was formed in 1926.
“We are in serious trouble. We have exhausted all possible grants and loans,” says Hitchcock, who served in the militia.
This year’s poppy sales, a significant revenue source for the Legion, are significantly down as people stay home due to COVID concerns.
Yet the Legion is still active in the community. It is hosting the annual Remembrance Day event. But with limits on public gatherings, the Legion will not realize the extra donations from that event as in previous years. The budget shortfall is sure to affect other services the Legion offers, such as:
–Assisting veterans to receive benefits on what it calls ‘sometimes-complicated processes.’
–Financial assistance for veterans in financial distress, which includes food, heating, clothing, and prescription medication, among other services.
–Support for veterans in long-term care facilities through its Outreach and Visitation Initiative.
–Helping homeless veterans. The Poppy Fund helps these veterans in housing support and deal with drug abuse.
“We helped two veterans during covid get off of the streets. It’s very expensive. We have to put them up in hotel rooms we have to pay for meals,” says Salway, who served in Afghanistan with the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry. “The other challenge is the substance abuse issues—the alcoholism and all the stuff that happens after they hit the streets. Veterans stay on the street longer than their civilian equivalents, sometimes upwards of four years longer. The average age is about 43 for veterans on the street, with ten percent of that being pensioners over 65.”
Salway can relate to veterans in need. He joined the military after 9/11. The army deployed him to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2006.
“I was wounded during an intensive operation in a small town call Pangea. We had an airstrike called in,” Salway recalls. “I was wounded quite badly in the neck and lower back and the brain and the lungs. Subsequently, I came back, and over the decade, I started showing a lot of the symptoms in my brain, and one of them was PTSD. I was having severe nightmares over several years.”
That’s when Clover, a four-year-old English Mastiff, came into Jody’s life. Jody received Clover from the Legion.
“She was trained to recognize those nightmares as they were happening, and she would do nighttime terror interruptions from there. I would get a little bit more sleep, breaking me from the cycle,” says Salway.
Service dogs with such specialized training don’t come cheap. Yet, it is one of the additional services the Legion provides to veterans.
The Legion’s bar, once the centre of activity, is permanently closed.
“For ethical reasons and integrity. It’s bad optics helping veterans with substance abuse issues, and yet we were selling beer. We are not in the business of slinging beer. Not that there’s anything wrong with beer. We are in the business of helping veterans,” says Salway.
The immediate concern is merely keeping a stable revenue flow to keep the Legion alive. Hitchock, a longtime member of the Legion, says he appreciates the public’s support. Now the Legion must get with the modern times, he says, and that includes offering more donor options.
“We have a web page and a Facebook page, and we’d like people to donate online and get a tax receipt. Instead of putting $20 in the poppy box, send it our way online and get a receipt,” says Hitchock.
Says Salway: “It is a hyper-competitive market with other charities and non-profits. The younger generation has different criteria on how to volunteer. The legion tech-wise is a little behind the eight ball. Donor burnout is also a real thing,”
Once Remembrance Day is over, it is hoped the community will step up and help.
“Come down and talk to us about what we’re doing,” says Salway. “It’s about partnering with other organizations like government organizations, small business owners, and see how you can help out. We don’t have all the answers. I’m sure there are a lot of smart people out there that could help us further along with our mission. Come down and talk to us. We’re pretty approachable.”
That idea will also get a paw up from Clover.