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Veterans groups moving into nursing homes

Milton Pierce's voice reverberated across the room as the former World War II bomber pilot called the roll at his monthly American Legion meeting.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Milton Pierce's voice reverberated across the room as the former World War II bomber pilot called the roll at his monthly American Legion meeting.

It was much like any other gathering of the roughly 15,000 posts nationwide, except for one critical difference: Pierce and his fellow members were only steps away from the comfort of their own homes.

The 90-year-old veteran and his compatriots live at Middlebrook Farms, an assisted living community in Trumbull, Conn., where they are members of the state's first American Legion post stationed in a nursing care complex.

As the nation's veterans age and become less mobile, groups such as the Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars are trying to recruit and retain more members by making it easier for them to reach meetings.

Steadily gaining members
In Trumbull and elsewhere, that means invoking an age-old adage: If Mohammed can't come to the mountain, the mountain must come to Mohammed. The "mountain" — in this case, American Legion Post 207 — has been steadily gaining members at Middlebrook Farms since it was launched in 2006 at the assisted living facility about 90 minutes north of New York City.

Leaders of the Indianapolis-based Legion say it's among just a few such posts among their 15,000-plus sites nationwide. Others already are in place in retirement communities for people ages 55 and older, including one about 45 miles north of Trumbull in Southbury's Heritage Village.

"What we try to do is make sure we have a post wherever our service population is, wherever our veterans are, and that means nursing homes and assisted living (communities) are a prime place for us," said Jack Querfeld, the national Legion office's internal affairs director.

Membership at the Middlebrook post started with just a handful of interested veterans in 2006. Now it has about 25 members.

They do have another option: a well-established Legion post nearby and others in neighboring Shelton, Fairfield, Stratford and Bridgeport.

But for Pierce and others like him, making the trip is a physical and organizational marathon. It means finding a ride and packing up the large oxygen tank he uses after a battle with lung cancer — all the while ensuring his breathing tube, which he jokingly calls his "nose hose," doesn't come loose.

"If I had to leave to go to meetings, I guess I just wouldn't," said Pierce, who moved to Trumbull last November from Temple, Texas, to be closer to his grown children.

"That would be a shame because I like it quite a bit, and the goals of the Legion are the same as mine so it's very easy to support," he said.

Same camaraderie and traditions
The Middlebrook post, which meets monthly in the building's community room, is a far cry from the stereotypical Legion halls where members can drop in, grab a beer with friends, jawbone for hours and rent space for parties or receptions.

Yet the camaraderie and traditions are the same, said Everett Shepard III, adjutant of the American Legion's Connecticut operations.

"They get great attendance here, a lot of times more than at some of what would once be considered traditional posts," Shepard said as he prepared to greet the Middlebrook veterans at a recent meeting.

And even though these veterans are in the same complex as their living quarters, that doesn't mean they slack off when it comes to attire.

Some arrive in wheelchairs or using walkers, some stroll in on their own. But all proudly sport dress clothes and their blue and beige Legion hats with yellow piping.

In one corner of the room, iced tea and juice await those whose medications don't allow them to indulge in the Bud Light chilling in ice. Nearby, a small table set for one with a single red rose in a vase honors missing prisoners of war.

Gene Dardani, 88, the post's chaplain and a retired supervisor for a chain of produce stores, was an active member of a post in neighboring Fairfield before he moved to Middlebrook about three years ago.

Forced to give up driving
Being forced to give up driving because of eyesight and hearing problems stopped him from traveling to those gatherings but motivated him to become one of the earliest leaders and members of the Middlebrook post.

"I'm the type of person that, if I'm interested in something and it's not here, I'll start it," said Dardani, who also launched a Bible class at the facility. "I'm not going to sit around."

Cindy Shea, Middlebrook's activities coordinator, was able to bring together the interested veterans and the Legion officials with a call to the organization. It's become such a popular group at the facility that Middlebrook pays the members' dues as a perk of their residency and buys their Legion caps for them.

"We have so many veterans here who can bond and connect over their military service," Shea said. "We put a note in the calendar about the meetings, they started showing up and it really took off from there."