JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Police are looking for whoever broke into American Legion Post 9 in Northwest Jacksonville over the weekend, stole thousands of dollars and then set the building on fire to cover up the crime.
Shortly after Jacksonville firefighters put out the blaze on New Kings Road early Sunday morning, the state fire marshal estimated $100,000 damage to the building and its contents and ruled it was an arson.
Chairs and tables were burned and military memorabilia was destroyed. The post's activity room was also damaged, with smoke blackening the walls.
"This is painful, very painful. You wake up in the morning and you're, like, it really did happen," Post Commander Lena Heredia-Perez said as she walked through the badly damaged building on Monday. "This is the bar area. This is how we are able to do the charity work that we do and pay our bills."
Some coin-operated machines and an ATM were broken into.
"They popped open the back and took the money out," Heredia-Perez said.
Veterans and their families who frequented the post are devastated and want to know why anyone would try to destroy the building.
Heredia-Perez said the veterans she serves are relentless and strong, so they will rebuild. She was humbled by the people who heard about the fire Sunday and came out to see how they could help.
In a sign that everything will be OK, a table honoring prisoners of war and those missing in action survived the fire.
"To the person who did this: Shame on you. But you did us a favor, because we are going to build a better facility."
Jacksonville police are investigating this as an burglary and arson. According to the incident report, they have no information about who did it.
Community helps veterans rebuild
The Texas Roadhouse on Blanding Boulevard in Orange Park committed to donating 10 percent of all its proceeds Monday night to help American Legion Post 9 rebuild.
"Being in the service industry, it's nice to give back to those who service our country," said Anna Doherty, who works for Texas Roadhouse.
Doherty said her first instinct was to think about what the restaurant could do to support the local veterans.
"I just can't believe how awful (it is) that someone would do that," she said. "The Legion is always doing great things for the community."
Monday night's fundraiser at Texas Roadhouse was just one of many planned to help the veterans.
"Couldn't tell you if it's always this busy (or) if it's because of us," said Marc Pica, American Legion Post 9 member. "We appreciate the emotion. We are looking forward to rebuilding."
A GoFundMe account has been set up to help American Legion Post 9.
The post also plans to raise money at the Sixth Annual Boots on the Ground Poker Run, which takes place May 12 at the Flamingo Lake RV Resort.
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