A major effort to promote Be the One

There is nothing minor about the support the American Legion Department of Massachusetts receives from the Springfield Thunderbirds.

For years the Thunderbirds, the American Hockey League affiliate of the St. Louis Blues, have supported Massachusetts Legion programs such as Boys State, Junior Law Cadet, American Legion Baseball and the developing softball program. The team honors a “Veteran of the Game” and regularly conducts a jersey raffle with proceeds going to a Legion program.

Department of Massachusetts NECman Jodie Pajak raves about the support.

“There’s no question, no feedback, no static when we ask them for anything,” she said. “There is no hesitation from anybody on their staff. I’ve never been to any establishment where they are that welcoming. They want to be part of the community and it definitely shows. The relationship is phenomenal.”

The Legion-Thunderbirds partnership was on full display on Dec. 1, The American Legion’s Be the One Day. American Legion members set up a booth inside the arena to educate fans about the organization’s primary mission to reduce the number of veteran suicides. Legion Family members handed out customized brochures to thousands of fans. (Video: how to modify and use this trifold at your Be the One event.)

Additionally, a special Be the One jersey, signed by the entire team, was revealed. It will be raffled off at the end of the season with proceeds going to the Veterans & Children Foundation to support Be the One.

During a break in the action, Jodie presented a coin to the “Veteran of the Game” on the ice. Every single member of the Thunderbirds tapped their hockey sticks on the ice, which is how players applaud.

The Be the One mission is especially meaningful for Jodie.

“Veterans suicide is a cancer that should not be,” she said. “There are way too many resources, way too many programs to help veterans and their families, to help combat these needs and feelings that these veterans develop in their military careers and come across as they try to transition out of service and back to civilian life. You can’t just flip a switch and go from structured to unstructured. You have to have some help. After a few years, you find you just can’t cope. With this program we hope that they see us and seek us out.”

One key, she pointed out, was having resources available.

“To be able to save one life is critical,” she said. “The more that people are willing to step up and help — and not being afraid to step up and help — may make the difference between life and death.”

Be the One was a natural tie-in this season for the Thunderbirds, which have regularly honored veterans. Their nickname, appropriately enough, is related to the Air Force Thunderbirds.

The team “wanted to get more involved with the community and they are wonderful to work with,” said Jodie, who along with her husband, Drew, are members of Post 185 in Agawam. “They felt the need and they did want to help. They have been phenomenal in promoting this as a way to reduce the stigma. We have a partner that loves putting the Legion first.”

The relationship began soon after the Pajaks, both of whom are Navy veterans, moved to Springfield where Drew’s family has been longtime supporters of their hometown team. In fact, they have had season tickets since 1936.

“They have been such strong supporters of every program we have,” Drew said. “On a smaller level, it mimics what we do with Chip Ganassi Racing. Jodie is the driving force for Legion softball here in Massachusetts. The minute the team heard about it, they immediately donated to Massachusetts Legion softball because it is for the kids. Anytime we have asked this team for support, promoting what the Legion is, they have always been there. It’s a great partnership.”

The Thunderbirds highlight The American Legion at all 36 home games. The Legion staffs a table inside the arena, promoting timely programs and initiatives. Over the course of a season, that outreach connects the Legion with at least 220,000 fans.

“At this level, specifically, I thought it was crucially important for us to build our business to open our doors to community projects and give it back to a number of programs, specifically the Legion,” said Nathan Costa, Thunderbirds team president. “Part of the vision from the very beginning was how we can do things to make an impact on the community while also trying to do the right thing.”

Ryan Smith, who manages the team’s media, community relations and broadcasting, said his grandfather served in World War II. “It’s wrenching for me that there are so many of these military folks who come back and for a variety of reasons and are not able to reacclimate to society,” he said.

Smith is thankful for the freedom he enjoys thanks to generations of veterans.

“This is a chance to thank them for all that they do,” he said. “Because without them, who knows what we could be doing on a day-to-day basis. There is no amount of thanks that we can give them for all that they do for us.”

Strong community partners embolden the Be the One mission.

“It should be important to everybody,” Jodie said. “Everybody should be aware. The Thunderbirds are family-oriented and community-oriented. It’s not only veterans. It’s the community itself. It could be your neighbor. It could be your friend. It could be your coworker that might need some help. They are willing to help us spread the word and make sure that it is known that is it OK to not be OK.”

Drew believes other American Legion departments and posts can forge similar partnerships with their local sports teams or other organizations.

“Just reach out,” he said. “Most of the time these groups are just waiting for you to ask. Don’t ask them to do something and then expect them to do it all for you. Make sure you are there to do it with them.”