Florida Legion post using coffee & camaraderie to address, improve mental health
Members of Post 243 are presented a FOX 35 Care Force Award for their weekly Coffee & Chat program. 

Florida Legion post using coffee & camaraderie to address, improve mental health

American Legion Post 243 in Oviedo, Fla., doesn’t have a canteen at its facility, so the post only is open a handful of days each month. But one of those days, Wednesday, is perhaps the most important day of the week for the post’s members and veterans in the surrounding community.

On Wednesday’s from 10 a.m.-noon, Post 243 hosts its Coffee & Chat sessions. It’s an opportunity for veterans – and their spouses – to gather at the post to share stories and experiences, as well as develop camaraderie.

And it’s also an opportunity to address mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and possible thoughts of suicide.

“Everybody’s got a story,” Post 243 Commander Brad Sokoly said. “Somebody’s talking, and then a veteran walks in and says, ‘I was in Vietnam during that time, and we did that.’ And we’ve had on several occasions people who were on the same ship. They’re not going to find that at their local card game. It definitely opens the door for more direct, stimulating conversation.”

And then there’s the mental health side, which Sokoly said ties directly into The American Legion’s Be the One veteran suicide prevention program.

“I have PTSD. I am a very strong advocate for mental health support,” Sokoly said. “Sometimes it kills me. But it’s made me get out there and go advocate for it, because I know how it feels. So Be the One is a program I push.

“Be the One, everyone feels that. Everyone is watching out. It’s, ‘Hey, did you see so-and-so? No, I haven’t seen him. I’m going to stop by there on the way home today.’ Every day is Be the One Day at our post.”

Sokoly said the program began around five or six years ago and was the brainchild of a group of past post commanders wanting to provide a scheduled time for veterans to gather. “They said, ‘Let’s put on a pot of coffee and see what happens,’” he said. “It’s went from five, 10 people to steadily getting more people. Our latest numbers are about 70 people showing up.”

Spouses are invited to attend the chats. “They’re a strong part of this,” Sokoly said. “The spouses, they are the reason why that veteran is going. They are a great influence to (the veteran). So we want them coming. It just makes make it more welcoming, more homey. I try to tell everyone, ‘You’re all our family, every one of you.’”

Sokoly said the weekly chats, as well as a concerted effort to be involved in the community, has resulted in Post 243 growing to 273 members in a facility meant to hold 55. The post recently was presented the FOX 35 Care Force Award for its efforts and has launched a fundraiser to put an addition on the current building.

“We really believe in getting out in the community and spreading the word and getting in the local (media),” Sokoly said. “People see us and they hear about us. I keep telling everyone, ‘Every one of you is a recruiter.’ So as people go out and they see that ballcap – Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, whatever – to ask, ‘Hey, what are you doing on Wednesdays?’ And it just grows from word of mouth.

“And they come, they have a great time. It’s no pressure. It’s just come visit the post. We don’t want to force anybody to become a member. It’s just, ‘Hey, just come and have a cup of coffee.’ And it opens the door.”