Legion leader has big plans for veterans

Steve Cain, Commander of the Duane Ellsworth American Legion Post 129 in Queen Creek has a big vision for serving veterans in the region. (David Minton/Tribune Staff Photographer)

You could easily be excused for not knowing that the American Legion has a presence in Queen Creek. Any presence at all.

Crammed in a tiny office in the back of the Chamber of Commerce building along old Ellsworth Road, 47-year-old Navy veteran Steve Cain, Post Commander of Duane Ellsworth American Legion Post 129, sits amid storage boxes, cleaning supplies, a few mismatched desks and chairs, and bags and bags of old, weathered and retired American flags.

“We have a spot where the community can drop off worn and tattered flags

and we can properly retire them,” Cain explained.

“We’ve probably got close to 500, 700,” the stocky, red bearded Cain added, looking out from under his Navy ball cap.

Retiring them used to involve burning them, Cain said, until the flags started being made with synthetic materials – which released noxious chemicals and smoke when set alight.

Cain served in the Navy from 1994 to 1998 and spent time in Guantanamo Bay and Italy. His plans to be a pilot didn’t work out, which is the whole reason he joined the Navy in the first place.

“Top Gun is my favorite movie,” he said.

From this small office, Cain, along with other volunteers, helps recently retired military veterans find job training skills, financial and medical assistance, as well as other benefits they are entitled to but may not even know about.

“Our main primary purpose is to look out for veterans, making sure veterans have a place to go to seek out other veterans and guide them through the VA process,” Cain said.

When military service members go from active duty to veteran status, they are almost never made aware of what they qualify for or how to get those benefits, in addition to facing other barriers.

“First and foremost is the lack of knowledge they get coming out of the military of what’s available to them” Can said.

“Usually in their out-processing they get some kind of download, go through a program or whatever, but they don’t get many details and most of the time they weren’t really paying attention to what’s provided to them. That is where we could potentially help with where to point them for job services and educational opportunities,” Cain said.

The American Legion office is small. The budget, $2,000 to $3,000 a year, is minuscule. At about 200 vets, the membership base pretty modest, too.

But the vision and the dream are huge, Cain said, as he described the goal of creating a one-of-a-kind service center known as the Southeast Valley Veterans and First Responders Alliance where all the veteran service organizations in the Southeast Valley can come together under one roof, providing a more efficient process to access services for ex-service members and their families.

“My hope is that with this veteran’s center, the American Legion will have a home there. We can actually bring in the VFW, the DAV and all the other veteran service organizations,” Cain said.

“Because down here in the Southeast Valley, we don’t have anything except us. It will be the place for veterans to go to find services.”

But access to veterans’ services is just a small, though vital, part of the new facility as Cain imagines what he said will be a “several million dollar” facility spread across “4 or 5 acres.”

“It’s gonna be costly,” he said. “But with our fundraising efforts that we are anticipating, we’ll get it done.”

Cain said the Alliance has applied for non-profit, tax-exempt status, which will allow them to ramp up fundraising efforts next year, focused on constructing a center that can offer community events.

Cain is not just talking about a veteran’s hall. He is talking about a big facility capable of hosting large community events.

“Anywhere from concerts to banquets,” Cain said. We don’t really have a venue in the Queen Creek area for large scale events. “We’re hoping that we’ll have a bar environment, a grille, possibly some museums in there, devoted to the military service and first responder service.

“We’ll have an outdoor amphitheater, outdoor, patriotic events. I think part of the idea is to have war era memorials around the amphitheater,” Cain said.

The proceeds from any events at the new facility would go to the veterans’ organizations that are part of the alliance.

Cain said there is no place like this in the state and the center is being designed with the whole region in mind.

“We’ll be contacting Gilbert, Mesa,

San Tan Valley, Florence. All the local facilities because they could all come and use the facility; we’re not just limiting it to Queen Creek.”

With the American Legion budget of just a few thousand dollars a year, Cain has a plan to raise the money necessary to make the facility a reality.

“We’ll be reaching out to big time

donors,” Cain said. “If things go the way we expect them to, it will be a self-sustaining project.”

Cain declined to talk about a potential location for the 4 or 5 acres that he mentions, although he is counting on the help of a local church and said planners and architects are in place.

He said Queen Creek has borrowed plans from an American Legion post in South Dakota that has done something similar. On its website, the South Dakota Military Heritage Alliance bills itself as a “national model for military, veteran, and civilian relations.”

While that facility is already a reality, the Southeast Valley Alliance remains in the planning stages and will require cooperation, coordination, and patience. “I’ve been trying to build this for years,” Cain said.

Info: SouthEastValleyAlliance.com