As Afghan war vets reach critical date, local is honoured for work to save the legion
by LAURA KEIL
It’s 4:30 PM on a sunny Friday, and Valemount Legion President Pete Pearson is priming the grill for Burger Night.
About 50 people wind their way through the doors for burgers and live music. It’s the Legion’s most popular night, and one of the ways this legion keeps the lights on when many legions are powering down.
It’ll be more than three hours before Pearson gets to sit down to his own meal.
It’s not just the sheer hours he puts in, but an openness to new ideas that sets Pearson apart, says Terri Dammann, a long-time Legion volunteer.
“The thing about Pearson is he’s open to change,” she says.
Last month, Pearson was recognized by Zone Command as Legionnaire of the Year, for his selfless and dedicated contributions to the legion and his community.
Pearson’s efforts come at a time when legions are struggling to evolve to a new generation of veterans.
Some legions, anyway. Old men drinking at tables swapping trench stories isn’t what you’ll find in Valemount most nights.
Pearson has targeted a younger crowd by promoting music nights and acquiring a new liquor license that allows children.
Though the vibe at the legion is perhaps a little wilder — think children popping out from under your table — its finances are in the black. The legion boasts 135 members in a town of just over 1,000 people, and many nights the legion reaches capacity.
Under Pearson, the legion sold their old snooker table to make room for a stage, which boasts permanent sound equipment and a shiny drum kit. They’ve replaced the carpet and are renovating the bathrooms.
While this particular Friday is busy, the entire weekend has events. A community theatre production is slated for the following day. Sunday will be a church service.
The idea is to have live music every Friday, mostly local bands that draw small by dedicated crowds.
Change is the name of the game when it comes to Canadian Legions. In the past 20 years, some 280 Canadian Legions closed for a good, a decrease of 17 per cent. Legions Canada does not keep track of hours of operation, but John Scott of the B.C. Yukon Command notes some B.C. legions don’t actually have regular hours or buildings anymore.
Many Canadians equate veterans with WW2 or Korea forgetting about the roughly 600,300 Canadian Armed Forces Veterans whose average age is 57. WW2 and Korea veterans are actually a small fraction of today’s veterans, accounting for just one in nine veterans alive today, Veterans Affairs data shows. That doesn’t count RCMP veterans.
Due to peacekeeping and military operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the number of Canadian veterans actually increased roughly 120,000 from 20 years ago, according to Veterans Affairs.
Legions are still important contributors to veterans, says Michael Lewis, 44, co-owner of Valemount’s Three Ranges Brewing Co. and a U.S. veteran who was deployed to Iraq, Macedonia and Kosovo.
“The thing about peacekeeping is, it doesn’t mean it’s peaceful,” — US Veteran Michael Lewis
“When you have this really disconnected society it’s so hard to figure out how to find a connection when you walk away from the military and that community,” he says.
He has noticed a lot of Canadian veterans are not fully recognized since their missions were “peacekeeping.”
“The thing about peacekeeping is, it doesn’t mean it’s peaceful. You’re there essentially to present a show of force to help try and keep the peace,” says Lewis.
At the Valemount Legion, it’s easy to see how the friendly and laid-back environment could be a good one for a veteran seeking to socialize with other military members or people sympathetic to their experience.
Lewis heard it takes roughly seven years for a veteran to seek out a place like the legion. He notes Canada is just now hitting the seven-year mark for many Afghan vets.
The services legions provide are even more important in light of media attention on suicides and mental health issues of Canadian veterans.
But it’s not just services directly to veterans. Pearson says the Valemount Legion recently donated $750 towards a palliative care bed. He says over the years, the legion has provided money for veterans and seniors in need of mobility aids. The Legion also raises money for national funding pots.
Les Dammann, a long-time Legion volunteer and husband to Terri, says Pearson has singlehandedly raised thousands of dollars by obtaining a $1,000 volunteer grant from his employer CN Rail several years running.
“That’s a lot of garage sales,” he notes.
As with many non-profits, revenue is a constant battle. The annual Legion Auction is a charming three-hour tour through people’s donated belongings. It’s the full box or nothing, and bidding sometimes starts at 30 cents.
The auction usually raises $800-$1,600, Terri says, and it used to be their biggest fundraiser.
But when the legion is packed, they can clear thousands just from the bar, says Pearson’s wife Kerry Pearson. She says one night it was just she and Pete volunteering and they cleared $2,600.
While the legion has paid bar tenders, Pete, Kerry and other volunteers like Marie Birkbeck, Monique and Eugune Jamin, and others will often be seen clearing tables, cooking, or cleaning up.
And Pearson is always there if no one else is.
“He can’t say no,” his wife says, joking that she calls herself a grass widow.
Legion member and bookkeeper Ellen Duncan says Pearson’s strength is also his weakness, in that he doesn’t delegate and so ends up doing a lot more – something he’s working at changing.
Pearson – who admits the Legion is like a second job – says he would like to attract a few more volunteers to help barbecue or cook a few hours each month.
Also Deputy Zone Commander, Pearson says he isn’t the first person to give countless hours to the Legion, which is perhaps why he is so shy to talk about himself.
“It’s not what it’s about,” he says, referring to the recognition.
Pearson sits on a dozen other boards as well, including the Valemountain Days Committee, the Valemount Entertainment Society, Adult Slow Pitch, the Arena Board, Boy Scouts, Old Timers Hockey Board, Men’s Night Captain at Golf Course, and is the union rep at his employer CN Rail.
His wife says Pearson would volunteer with his parents when he was young and that’s where he got his first impressions of giving back. His dad was a veteran.
It’s partly the small touches that make Pearson a special volunteer.
As he flips burgers Friday night, someone is surprised he has veggie burgers.
“Yup,” Pearson says, “We’ve got gluten-free beer too. A couple came last year and asked for it, so I got a six-pack.”
Though he’s a meat-eater himself, he says he wants to get an even better veggie burger.
Never idle, Pearson’s next project is applying for an elevator or lift so people with mobility challenges can access the legion museum upstairs.
The bright museum with hardwood floors and glass cabinets contains the memorabilia of over 50 veterans with local ties.
One of those veterans is the late Bob Beeson who owned a sawmill and donated lumber to build the Legion.
After the museum opened, Pete and Kerry carried Beeson up the stairs so he could view the displays.
“He was thrilled,” Pearson says. “It’s a hidden gem up there we need to promote more,”
While some legions are accused of being out of touch with today’s younger veterans, Lewis says that’s simply not the case in Valemount.
“I know there are legions where that is an issue. Ours is not one of them.”