By JEFF CLEMETSON
When protesters and rioters overtook La Mesa on May 30 of last year, buildings throughout the downtown Village and City Hall were vandalized, including the American Legion Post 282 building.
The morning after the riots, veterans woke to find the post’s windows and solar panels broken or damaged from rocks; the Vietnam Memorial and main building tagged with graffiti; exterior damage to the walls and even the flag left burned, hanging on the pole.
“Someone cut the flag and the next morning … it wasn’t even a post member here but it was an ex-military who shimmied up the flag pole and replaced the flag because that flag has been in front of this building forever. There’s a lot of pride in the organization that someone would do that,” said Capt. Ronald Toland, a retired naval officer and American Legion post member.
Toland, along with fellow post member Lt. Dennis Hooks, have undertaken a similar mission that mindful ex-military member undertook the morning after the riots — the repair and revitalization of the American Legion building and hall.
“A lot of our members are Vietnam vets and they remember very distinctly the feeling of coming back to a community that didn’t see what they did commensurate with the level of sacrifice they gave — that experience meant a lot to them. So looking at this post, looking at the damage that was done, there was a lot of sentiment to making it beautiful again, really making it a place where people want to come,” Hooks said.
In addition to the damage cause by rioters, the Legion hall is in need of the kinds of repairs expected from a building constructed in 1947.
“Whenever there’s rain, there’s flooding here,” Hooks said, pointing to a broken sump pump in the basement area. Outside, there are irrigation issues around the Vietnam Memorial. Upstairs, the wood floors in the hall are an issue.
“The old wooden flooring in there has been stripped down numerous times and refinished to the point that now it’s a total replacement,” Toland said.
The repairs will cost money and like most non-profit entities, the American Legion operates on a thin budget, with most of its proceeds from members going to public service like funding Little League baseball teams and programs like Boys State and Girls State, which teaches incoming high school seniors how state and city government works. So Hooks and Toland have taken on the task of seeking out funding for the repairs from both public dollars and private donations, as well as grants.
“There are a lot of community grants out there for veterans — they’re pretty tough to get, but it’s worth doing in order to get these small dollar grants in order to get what we need done,” Hooks said.
The American Legion is also seeking out help in other ways as well. Hooks described the overall pitch for community help this way:
“We’re really trying to get this done, can you help us out? Whatever you can do to help, we’ll take. Whether it’s man hours, whether it’s expertise, whether it’s materials, we’ll find a way to work with it,” he said.
Still, because the Legion’s traditional fundraising activities like flower sales before Memorial Day were hampered by the pandemic, monetary donations are necessary for the estimated “tens of thousands of dollars” or more that the repairs will ultimately cost.
“It depends on how far the reach is,” Hooks said, of how much the Legion needs to raise. “We want to responsible with everyone’s money and we’re being very scrappy. We have friends in the construction industry. We’ll try to stretch the dollar as much as possible, while still making the space as beautiful as we can.”
In addition to the needed repairs, Hooks and Toland also hope to address the “super wish list” item of revamping the bar area located below the main hall to make it more inviting and to be able to open that space up for more public events beyond the poker tournament fundraiser held annually there.
“[La Mesa’s American Legion building] is unique in the sense that it is the only veterans organization in the area that has a bar,” Hooks said. “And that’s fun for most of us. It’s an area where veterans can come, let their guard down, talk to one another, receive counseling. We have several pastors and ordained ministers that are part of our group and they’ll hang out down here and provide that kind of informal counseling. So it’s a really important element for those veterans returning home.”
The wish list bar revitalization as well as the needed repairs to the main hall are part of a new vision for the building to be more inviting to the civilian community as well as attract more veterans to become members.
“Our vision is a center for the community — a place for the community to know that veterans are members, a place to support veterans first and foremost, but more than that, to reach out to everybody and say, ‘Hey, this hall isn’t just for us, it’s a central point. It’s right across form City Hall, it’s a beautiful building, all are welcome,’” Hooks said.
Aesthetics are also a factor.
“The other thing too is that when these new projects are done around here, we don’t want our building to be the ugly, forgotten times,” Toland said. “It’d be nice to revamp our structure so it blends in with the rest of the community.”
Some of that blending into the community will already be done when the Jefferson La Mesa apartment buildings being built next door are completed. As part of an agreement with the city, the Jefferson developers will make upgrades to the American Legion parking lot and add some landscaping.
Hooks said the Legion has also reached out to the city for possible help in repairing the irrigation issues around the Vietnam Memorial. He and Toland also have met with Supervisor Joel Anderson for possible help from the county. And now the two are busy making a push for help from the community.
“I know La Mesa loves its veterans and I know they are there for us just like we’re there for them. How can we help each other?” Hooks said.
The La Mesa American Legion Post 282 is a non-profit Veterans Organization 501(c)(19), FEIN 95-2278001, California Corporate ID 147881. If you would like to donate to Post 282 efforts, please either mail donations to:
The American Legion, La Mesa Post 282
PO Box 265
La Mesa, CA 91944-0265