Credit: Anne Kniggendorf / American Homefront
Richard Sobek is known as “Bear” to the members of American Legion Post 327 in Shawnee, Kansas, where he’s the commander. He served as a Marine in Vietnam and said he’s survived a lot.
“I’ve seen every kind of disease you can have: polio and the measles, mumps, rubella, H1N1,” he said.
But this battle with COVID-19 is different, and it has hit his post hard. Post 327 closed for three months in the early stages of the pandemic, then reopened, then closed for another two months during an upswing in cases.
The post is open again now, but business is slow, and its finances are in crisis. Sobek said it has lost both money and some of its 376 members — but not to the illness.
Since March 2020, it has been important to Sobek and post manager Jeanne Barnhart to follow health guidelines. Furthermore, visits from the county and the Alcoholic Beverage Control division of the Kansas Department of Revenue have kept them honest.
But he said their willingness to follow protocol has cost them, as other nearby American Legion posts stayed open.
"A lot of our people decided, ‘Well, the other posts are open, so we’ll go there,’” Sobek said.
He doesn’t know why some of the other posts remained open, and he won’t name them, but a quick scan of Facebook shows that some kept a full schedule of events all through the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Post 327 received a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, which is almost gone and was barely enough to keep it out of the red.
Sobek said they’ve got a 50-50 chance of survival.
Most of the post's revenue comes from the rental of the banquet hall in their modest brick building on the outskirts of Kansas City.
Weekly post-sponsored bingo games in the hall are back, but the profit is slim after the prizes are paid out. Barnhart said what would really steady them are wedding receptions and other private party bookings.
“Before COVID, I was booked pretty full on hall rentals upstairs,” she said. “I got two the other day. They’re slowly coming out.”
The return of veterans to their members-only bar also has been slow. The mask mandate hurt nearly as much as keeping the bar closed; the post lifted it when the CDC gave the go-ahead in mid-May.
“Now that they don’t have to wear a mask, they’re happy,” Barnhart said.
Dennis and LeAnn Busby are happy to be back. Before the pandemic, they sat at one of the bar’s high-top tables two or three times a week. Since April, they’ve bumped it up to four.
“We enjoyed coming in here because they have live music here on Friday night. It’s older people, and I get a kick out of older people,” Dennis Busby said.
He’s 69 and is not a veteran. He belongs to the Post 327 through Sons of the American Legion.
The couple said they appreciate that their post followed the guidelines.
“It was as tough financially for them as it was for anybody, but they didn’t complain about it or wonder why the somebody wasn’t here to bail them out. It was just like ‘this is the way it is,’” Busby said.
Sobek seems to have arrived at “this is the way it is” by recalling actual battle experiences. He tells about being on an island with other servicemembers as an enemy plane flew overheard strafing them.
“There was a whole bunch of us out there that wanted to live, but we got shot at. And that’s nothing different from COVID; you get shot at by the enemy,” Sobek said.
It’s bothered him that some people still say the precautions were unnecessary or even that COVID isn’t real. As far as he’s concerned, the disease wouldn’t have wreaked the havoc it did if communities like his had been better unified.
“But it has seriously affected this post and our ability to recover what we had,” Sobek said.
To aid in that recovery, the post has gone back to hiring bands to play on Friday nights. The idea is that if enough people pay the $5 cover charge and stay long enough, the post will turn a profit. So far, it's just broken even.
Barnhart and Sobek are hopeful that the situation will improve soon.
Sobek asked, “Where else can you go on a Friday night and pay five bucks and dance all night?”
This story is part of our American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration on in-depth military coverage with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The Patriots Connection.
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