Navy Veteran Funeral 2

Dean Noechel, commander of the American Legion in Colorado, made the call, and more than 80 veterans made the long drive to Fort Lyon National Cemetery for 86-year-old Navy veteran Horace Marrinan’s funeral Wednesday.

American Legion state commander Dean Noechel says the organization is working to stay in touch with members while also telling them to stay away.

More than 60 percent of Legion members fall into the older age demographic that's most vulnerable to coronavirus. Yet, while isolation is good at slowing the virus, it's bad for veterans who often struggle with loneliness and war-caused mental issues.

"It is more important now than ever before to be reaching out to our brothers and sisters," Noechel said.

The Pikes Peak region has the state's largest veterans population, estimated at more than 100,000, and one of the largest concentrations of veterans in the country.

While veterans groups work to care for members during efforts to slow the spread of the virus, the federal Department of Veterans Affairs continues its focus on health, but with some changes

The VA announced Monday a ban on visitors at its Colorado facilities during the pandemic, with a few exceptions for what the agency called "humanitarian reasons."

VA facilities across the state were open to patients for normal hours on Monday.

"Please arrive 30 minutes early for your appointment and please come alone unless you need assistance from a direct caregiver and/or it is medically necessary," the agency said on its website.

Noechel said the American Legion has shut down large gatherings and is considering what to do about the bars and restaurants at Legion Halls.

Closing those money-making operations is troubling for the nonprofit because that often how local posts raise money to cover their bills, Noechel said.

The virus also hit while the Legion is seeing a Renaissance, with its membership roles growing after years of stagnation. Leaders say the new face of the Legion is tied to an emphasis on activities for younger veterans, including motorcycle groups and a growing focus on community service.

While Legion halls are empty, Legionnaires are busy working the phones, Noechel said.

The Legion celebrated its 101st birthday over the weekend and kicked off its annual "buddy check" drive, designed to contact every member of the organization to check in.

It was first implemented to help quell the suicide crisis in the veterans population, but now it's also used to counter problems caused by the coronavirus, Noechel said.

"We are here to help and assist," he said.

The organization is encouraging Legionnaires to offer up groceries and supplies to members who are stuck at home during the outbreak.

The calls also provide a crucial link that was offered by Legion posts before coronavirus struck.

"We gather at our posts to talk and tell stories," Noechel said. "We are here to support each other."

Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

Senior Military Editor

Tom Roeder is the Gazette's senior military editor. In Colorado Springs since 2003, Tom covers seven military installations in Colorado, including five in the Pikes Peak region. His main job, though, is being dad to two great kids.

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