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Greensboro's first American Legion post may have to close its doors amid financial squeeze because of pandemic
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Greensboro's first American Legion post may have to close its doors amid financial squeeze because of pandemic

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GREENSBORO — The Henry K. Burtner American Legion Post 53 was established in 1919 amid a flu pandemic. Now, more than one hundred years later, the current pandemic may force the veterans group to close its post home doors. 

In a letter to the News & Record, Cmdr. Robert Hickey wrote the post needed about $25,000 to stay afloat. He said earlier this month that the post, which bills itself as the oldest American Legion post in Greensboro, may have to close in about six months if it can't raise the money.

Legion Post 53 has long supported community events, from youth activities such as Boys State, a workshop concentrating on state government and politics, to veterans events such as placing flags on veterans' graves for Memorial Day.

In the early days of the pandemic, the post organized a food drive in May with The Servant Center, a local veterans homeless and transition center. The drive brought in about 1,000 pounds of food, cleaning supplies and personal hygiene items, as well as $140 for the center, according to a report on The American Legion website.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the post's finances were stable, Hickey said.

It rented out the post hall and held bingo games there to generate income, in addition to membership fees. 

All post positions are volunteer, so it doesn't have staff expenses except for when it would pay someone to tend bar in its clubroom.

With the pandemic and restrictions on large gatherings, they aren't able to rent out the hall or host bingo games anymore, Hickey said. 

Meanwhile, he said, they still have bills to pay: insurance, pest control, utilities and the like. 

"It adds up real quick," he said. 

To pay its bills, the post tapped its reserve fund. But Hickey knew that fund couldn't last forever. In January, he sent out letters describing the post's challenges and seeking contributions. 

"The post needs about $25,000 to stay afloat," he wrote. 

Even if it is able to resume its bingo and rental activities this summer, that money could come too late to save the post, Hickey said. 

The current post home at 729 Creek Ridge Road was dedicated on July 21, 1962. The post is named after Pvt. Henry K. Burtner, the first Guilford County resident to die in World War I.

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"Being the commander and stuff, I didn’t want to wait till the last minute to seek assistance," Hickey said.

At the time he sent out the letters, Hickey had received a couple of phone calls from people interested in donating, but hadn't gotten any checks, he said.  

Hickey said the post is not eligible for a loan through the CARES Act. "Even if we had a loan, how would we pay it back?" he asked. 

Like Burtner, other American Legion posts have struggled during the pandemic, according to Adjutant Tierian "Randy" Cash with the American Legion Department of North Carolina. 

Cash said he knows that many of the state's 300 posts are struggling financially under COVID-19, a significant increase from before the pandemic. Others, however, are weathering the COVID-19 storm. 

"Some posts are thriving during this time and some are not doing as well," he said.

Variables that play into the financial health of a post include whether it has bills connected to a building and the fundraisers it deploys.

He said the North Carolina department has encouraged posts to consider fundraisers that can be held outside, like chicken or fish takeout dinners. It's also recommending that posts continue finding ways to serve the community, such as hosting blood drives or offering up their parking lots as vaccination sites.  

Cash also said the department has helped some posts apply for an "Operation Blue" grant of up to $1,000 from the national American Legion organization, but declined to say if it has worked with Post 53. 

He said posts can set their own membership fees, but do have to send a portion to the state and national organizations. 

As older World War II and Korean war veterans are dying, Vietnam veterans are becoming a mainstay of the Legion, Cash said. 

Veterans tend to get more involved as they get older, he said, but younger veterans are now coming in and the organization is doing more to reach out to and support them online. 

The American Legion was chartered by Congress in 1919 as a patriotic veterans organization and membership is reserved for veterans who serve during wartime.

However, the 2019 LEGION Act signed by President Donald Trump declared the U.S. has been in a state of war since Dec. 7, 1941. Now any veteran who's served since the start of WWII is eligible. 

"Our foundational principles have not changed one bit," Cash said. 

Hickey said that while he moved to Greensboro in 2014, there are others who have been with the post for 50 years. 

He said being a part of the American Legion has allowed him to meet others who have been through the same things he's experienced. 

"We are a gathering point for veterans to come and talk to each other, for the camaraderie of it," Hickey said. 

Contact Jessie Pounds at 336-373-7002 and follow @JessiePounds on Twitter.​

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