The banquet hall of the Homer Elks Lodge was lined with tables, some covered with table cloths prepared for lunch and some completely covered by a variety of brochures. Dozens of veterans filed into the building for the lodge’s third annual Veterans Services Fair.
“It’s about camaraderie and support,” said Matt Barnes, a lodge veterans committee member. “It’s nice to see the veterans sitting around and talking, and then we are offering information about things they might not know about.”
Vendors at the fair set up tables with brochures about what services are available for veterans, including Clear Path for Veterans, Access to Independence and Veterans Search and Rescue ministry.
“We’re hoping that maybe they’ll find something they were looking for, sometimes they’ll find something that they didn’t even know they needed,” said Norm Stitzel, Marine Corps veteran and chaplain of Veterans Search and Rescue.
“It’s a great experience when the community recognizes and supports veterans,” said Air Force veteran Chuck Woske said. “Nowadays, a lot of vets like to get quiet recognition, don’t want a lot of fanfare or anything, so an event like this is just nice because it recognizes a whole swath of people.”
Service fairs like this are great for people who might be less connected to their local veterans’ community, he added. Each guest received a meal of pulled pork, corn, rolls, potatoes and cupcakes, a raffle ticket and two goodie bags, one with snacks and another with items such as a winter hat, a pair of winter socks and a bottle of hand soap. Any gift bags and supplies left over were sent to a Veterans Affairs nursing home in Oxford.
“Our veterans are really important to us,” said Jelena Barnes, chairwoman of the veterans’ committee for the Homer Elks Lodge. “A lot of them don’t realize that the Elks is for veterans, too, that they can just come and hang out. Sometimes that’s all they need because they’re lonely.”
People can visit the Homer Elks Lodge 2506 Facebook page or the veterans committee Facebook page for details or to get involved.
“Supporting the veterans is one of the most important things we can do because they were willing to give everything for us and so many people don’t make it back,” said Leah VanDonsel, veterans committee secretary. “It’s about getting all of those people together and saying, ‘Thank you for your service, and thank you for everything you did for us.’ That’s why we do this.”
This support is not only for the older veterans but the young ones, too, said veterans’ committee member M.B. Kingsley.
“The young ones really need to be focused on,” she said. “A lot of them are suffering from PTSD — they get deployed and they come back different. I’m good friends with a Marine in his 30s who has been deployed twice. They did stuff, they saw stuff, and they can really have trouble dealing with that.”
Ben Shultis, 24, spent four years in the Navy and is now beginning his second year in the Army. While he’s home, he visits the lodge and the Veterans of Foreign Wars to chat with fellow veterans.
“Those guys are fun to talk to, you really learn a lot,” Shultis said. “They can be a tough nut to crack, but once you can get their story — what they’ve done compared to my own experience — it is so eye-opening.”
“The sad thing … is that the older generation is dying, and the younger generation is just not as interested in membership,” said National Guard veteran Paul Powers, commander at the American Legion. “We push to get the younger generation more involved, but it’s just different growing up now — they get so busy, they don’t always have the time.”
“I don’t know too many young vets around here, but I try to reach out and invite them to come along with me to the Legion,” Shultis said. “I tell them, ‘I’ve been a member there for a few years now, and it’s a great place to just be not alone and learn what they can do for you.”