OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee American Legion is not just a social club. Rather, they are an integral part of the Okeechobee community. The Okeechobee American Legion opened in 1929. “These other organizations, VFW and Am Vets, they’re all Johnny Come Latelys,” said Dan Fennell, the lounge manager. The American Legion National organization was founded in March 1919 in Paris.
Colonel Lawrence Saucier, adjutant of Post #64, said some people have the wrong idea of what the American Legion is all about. Some people think it is a bar for veterans. Some think it is a social club. Although there are many social benefits to belonging to the American Legion, socialization is only one of the priorities. Meg Ruede is the bartender. She said most of the people who come in come to visit their friends. For many, the people of the Legion are like family. Their visits are a form of a wellness check too, she explained. If a veteran does not come in on his or her usual schedule, they know something is wrong and send someone to check on that person. The Legion cooks and sells food every day, and during the COVID shutdown last year, they were not able to open. The bartenders, who were actually unemployed at that time, got together, made sandwiches and delivered them to their veterans so they could check on them. “A lot of them don’t have anyone else,” she said. “We had to check on our veterans.” They also called the vets to check on them regularly. “This isn’t like Michigan where they might have their kids down the block. A lot of them are alone, and they were scared,” said Saucier.
“We don’t like to call it a bar,” Reude said. “We call it the Lounge.” They have some vets who come in, who don’t even drink. It’s not just men who enjoy hanging out there. Many female vets call it home as well. “They feel comfortable here. This is where their friends are,” said Ruede. “This is the “well check” for many of them. Sometimes they are having a bad day, and when we ask how they are doing, they feel safe talking about it here. If someone outside the Legion asked, they would probably just say they are fine. They aren’t going to go to Applebees and sit next to some young kid they don’t know and tell him their troubles.” The Legion has a sick-call board where they post alerts when someone is sick or in the hospital or nursing home. Then when members come in, they can check it and contact the people who are sick. “It’s definitely more than a cocktail with your lunch around here,” said Ruede.
Saucier said they are careful about who they allow in. They card everyone to make sure they really are veterans. “That’s so we don’t get people in here trying to sell drugs, and that has actually happened. We had one young guy out there who said he was a Vietnam vet, but he couldn’t have been older than 30! I asked him to tell me when he was in Vietnam, and he said ‘uuuhhhh 1989’. We all laughed and told him to get out.”
They use proceeds from the bar, especially from tabs (similar to a lottery card) to finance all of their outreach. This pays for beauty pageants, scholarships, sponsoring boy scout troops and cub scout troops (although those have been up in the air since COVID). In addition, they allow the Social Butterflies (a special needs group) to use their facility free of charge so they can get together and play bingo on Mondays. On Wednesdays, the group watches a movie and eats lunch there. The only charge is for the food or drinks they order. Pre-COVID, they allowed Quarters for a Cause to use the facility as well. Quarters for a Cause is a group that raises funds for locals who have a serious illness and need financial help. Unfortunately, they have not been able to start this back up again yet, because the crowds are too large to meet safely, said Ruede.
The Legion also works with the JROTC at the high school. This program was begun by Saucier in 2003. He started out with 175 cadets and worked there for about seven years before retiring. Pre-COVID, Fennell went out to the high school regularly to work with the students on their honor guard and their 21-gun salute which they do up at the park for ceremonies. The rifles the students use belong to the American Legion. The students normally participate in the flag disposal ceremonies as well. The scouts were a part of this too. At this time, the schools are not allowing visitors, and Fennell is not able to go up there to work with the kids.
Saucier said the Legion manages Veteran’s Memorial Park, and they spent the last week or so trying to figure out how to repair the damage done to some of the memorials when a car ran off the road and hit them. The wall is important to the community, he said. Not only does it hold the names of veterans who served in the past, but they continue to add names for those serving in more recent years. Matt Buxton handles the engraving of the stones. In 2017, the American Legion donated a memorial stone for the pilots and aircrews in Vietnam. The stone is located in front of the Huey UH1H helicopter that is on display in the park. The helicopters were in service from 1961 - 1975 during the Vietnam War. The giant boulder in veterans’ park was purchased by Fennell with a little help from the Legion.
The Legion also hosts a fair every year. In the past, it was always a free fair, meaning admission was free, but (again) due to COVID, things were a little different this year. A small admission fee ($2) was charged to help offset the cost of hand sanitizer and other needed items. They had to put up a fence so there would only be two entrances and only a certain number were allowed in at a time. Temperature checks were performed as well.
The Legion makes its property available for local ball teams to use for practices or games.
It is also possible to rent some of the Legion rooms. Many locals were married there or held quinceaneras or anniversary parties. The proceeds from these rentals are used to help with the other things the Legion does around town.
The Legion has an auxiliary, and they fund many things as well. Each year, the Legionnaires and the Auxiliary send a student from the high school to Tallahassee for Boys’ State and Girls’ State. “These programs are among the most respected in the country and teach students about government by allowing them to actually participate in local, county and state government. Participants learn the rights, privileges and responsibilities of citizens,” said Ruede. “There are past presidents who got their start in American government through Boys’ State.” Auxiliary members must have a relative who served in the military. A woman who served could be either a Legionnaire or an auxiliary member or both. They also have a group called the Sons of the American Legion. These members must also have a direct blood line with a service member. They sponsor some of the bingo games, and proceeds go to events like Halloween Trunk or Treat. They help whatever organization is putting on the event, whether it be the county or a church. Prior to COVID, they collected gifts to send to servicemen and did a Christmas in July.
Patriotism and Americanism are of high importance to the Legion and is backed up by the auxiliary. Every year, the group gives each school in town a new American flag. Every year, they give medals to students who show patriotism.
Each year, the Legion helps Guardians ad Litem purchase gifts for children in their program.
Last year, the Legion was completely closed for seven months, and it was hard on everyone. They are back to work now though and raring to go!