Over big lunch, military veterans connect with food, song, services and friendship

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 14, 2019

SALISBURY — As Mike Czuba tackled his plate of fried chicken, ham, green beans, macaroni and cheese, salad and dessert, he paused for this review:

“I’ll just say one word — fantastic,” Czuba said.

Terry Sides, a fellow Army veteran next to him, chimed in on what made Wednesday’s lunch for veterans at West End Plaza Event Center special.

“It’s the fellowship,” Sides said. “That’s what it is.”

Czuba and Sides were among hundreds of military veterans who took part in Thelma’s Tribute to Veterans, a reference to veteran Thelma Luckey, whose restaurant was the first host of Salisbury’s Tuesday morning Frontier Coffee Shop for veterans.

Frontier Coffee Shop is now held from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. Tuesdays in the K&W Cafeteria dining room, but Luckey’s restaurant still served up Wednesday’s big lunch. If they wanted — it wasn’t mandatory — folks were asked for a $5 donation toward the meal.

The Gary Sinise Foundation, a presenting sponsor, helped pay for the food with a $4,200 donation. Trellis Supportive Care, which sponsors many of the region’s coffee shops for veterans, was the host sponsor.

“I think this is a wonderful event,” said Korean War veteran Gale Mangis, who also frequently attends the Tuesday coffee shop. He said he enjoyed the breakfast group’s camaraderie and the chance to exchange viewpoints and experiences with fellow veterans.

That kind of socializing was at work again at Wednesday’s lunch.

Don Timmons, a Vietnam War veteran who works with Trellis Supportive Care, served as the day’s emcee.

During an aside, Timmons said the event offers a chance for veterans to connect the dots — first, just by seeing each other, and second, connecting them with people, places and organizations meant to help them.

“Even though it’s a lunch, it’s a lot more than lunch,” Timmons said.

Some of the places and organizations represented Wednesday included the Hefner VA Medical Center, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and groups such as the VFW, Disabled American Veterans, Vietnam Veterans of America and N.C. Military Veterans Hall of Fame.

Tom Harrell, a founder of the Frontier Coffee Shop, gave some of its history and described how it has even saved lives, through veterans helping veterans.

The stories continue to change for veterans through the years, and “Frontier” is an appropriate name, Harrell said, because “we are on a kind of frontier.”

Joe Vaughn, director of the Hefner VA Medical Center, said he has the initials of a lot of college degrees and certifications next to his name, but the title of “veteran” means the most and the service that it signifies came with the biggest responsibilities.

“Trust me, I get it,” Vaughn told the other veterans. “I identify.”

Vaughn listed some of the innovative treatment and care being provided at the Salisbury VA, including the only nationally certified oncology department in the VA system, renowned doctors in urology and hand surgery, the availability of 3D mammography and robotic technology.

Vaughn said every new employee joining the VA hospital receives the message that “customer service has to be spot on.” He said he expects every employee to treat every veteran as if it were the director walking through the door.

“I’m not going to back off of that for anything,” Vaughn said.

Mark Bilosz, director of the VA Services office in Winston-Salem, reviewed some of the things the VA is trying to improve for veterans through outreach and benefits.

Russ Chambers, vice commander of the state VFW, spoke for his 20,000-member organization. As survivors, he told the veterans, they have a responsibility to those who didn’t come home, those who came home hurt and the families of both of these groups.

As part of the lunch, the veterans heard touching stories and deep thanks from Baohannah Lee and her 33-year-old daughter, Star Phillips, both of Mooresville.

Lee told of her childhood growing up in war-torn Laos, her gratitude to the U.S. military and being able to escape the country in 1975. She came here in 1976, and Star was born and raised in this country, representing a first generation in her family who could say so.

“We’re free because of you,” Phillips told the Vietnam veterans in the room.

David Broadie, founder of the N.C. Military Veterans Hall of Fame, made a pitch for nominations to a third class in 2020. He also asked blue-jacketed Hall of Fame members attending Wednesday’s luncheon to stand, and there were five Hall of Famers in the room, including Luckey and Harrell.

Members of the Daughters of the American Revolution helped serve the meal, as did Rowan Register of Deeds John Brindle — who was also a guest speaker — and Rowan County Commissioners Greg Edds and Mike Caskey.

Serah Haley of Letters From Home sang for those gathered, and a DJ played music while the veterans dined.

Other sponsors included Cremation Concepts, Lyerly Funeral Home, Summersett Funeral Home, Linn-Honeycutt Funeral Home and the Smith Foundation.

“We love every veteran in this room,” said Vietnam veteran Ronnie Smith of the foundation. “God bless you, and God bless America.”

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.