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Changes at Legion hope to foster more relationships

By DAWNE LEIKER

dleiker@dailynews.net

A home away from home for local veterans is under new management, and the hope is new community relationships will follow.

"Sometimes veterans will drive by and see my car," said Lisa VanHorn, who took the reins as manager of Hays American Legion about a month ago. "They'll say, 'Hey, can I sit down and have a cup of coffee?' "

"And I say, 'Yeah, that's what this is all about.' "

Greeting American Legion members from across the state Friday afternoon as registration for the Kansas American Legion Mid-Winter Forum got under way, VanHorn, whose husband Kevin is commander of Hays American Legion Post No. 173, joked with the veterans, making them feel at home.

Members of the American Legion Riders gathered around a table and discussed details of an upcoming event. Good-natured teasing and laughter passed easily among the dozen.

"We're very much alive," VanHorn said. "We just need to get the word out.

"The economy's bad, so with the American Legion ... I've got the business side, which is the bar area and dining area, but the other side of it is we have incredible programs for the guys with some more exciting ones coming up."

One program in the works will help form relationships between older veterans and active duty or younger veterans.

"We're trying to get the program so that the older member can call someone if they need to get their medication during an ice storm or need their sidewalks cleared, things like that," VanHorn said.

Her hope is veterans will access the available services the Legion provides, and community members will make use of the ballroom, which accommodates 500 people.

"I don't want to lose this place," VanHorn said. "I don't want my veterans losing this place."

Hays American Legion is comprised of three branches, which in addition to Legion members includes Sons of the American Legion and the Ladies Auxiliary. Legion volunteers staff the facility for weddings and pitch in for community events such as the upcoming Special Olympics and the local Boy Scouts of America annual soap box derby.

Between 150 and 200 veterans attended Friday and Saturday's mid-winter forum. For Post No. 136 Mulvane Chaplain Monta Plank, an American Legion member for 47 years, the trip to Hays was one of many state and national conferences he has made.

A U.S. Air Force veteran of the Vietnam era, the 77-year-old Plank said he looked forward to the election of district officers that would take place during the weekend as well the camaraderie between the vets.

"We get together," he said. "Shoot the bull and have a good time.

"We get to see old friends that we haven't seen all year ... see who's going to the national and state conventions."

His job as a chaplain for his post entails officiating at funerals and memorial services, and providing comfort and assistance for sick veterans. In 2012, he officiated 15 funerals and 27 memorials in the Mulvane area.

Kansas American Legion commander Paul Sanford said efforts of Legion volunteers sometimes entail an uphill battle.

"Our job is to make sure we get our veterans help," Sanford said. "We take care of each other.

"We continue because the government keeps cutting our benefits, and we keep lobbying to get them back."