More than 150 military veterans and their families spent part of their Sunday enjoying a freshly prepared early Thanksgiving meal at the Buffalo VA Medical Center, as a cadre of volunteers and Girl Scouts sought to show their appreciation by serving the onetime troops.
With live music playing in the background, and an army of youthful helpers swarming about the cafeteria in the hospital basement, the homeless and needy veterans gobbled up turkey, stuffing, corn, potatoes and pie, while delighting in the camraderie of their friends and fellow former soldiers.
Young and old mingled together in the crowd, while the first snowflakes of the season fell outside. And the volunteers readily brought out second and even third helpings, foisting platefuls of food into the hands of the thankful veterans.
Yet even while reveling in the gratitude and attention, and praising the work of the Buffalo hospital, the veterans are also eager for more and better care from their government - more medical services, better housing, student-loan forgiveness, job training, and less bureaucracy. In interviews with The Buffalo News, they spoke of friends not being aware of what's available to them, of burdensome student loans hindering them after leaving the military and seeking an education, and of paperwork being lost in the shuffle.
Some are trying to be hopeful that the incoming administration of President-elect Donald J. Trump will deliver on his promises.
"Time will tell what President-elect Trump’s administration has to offer and where he stands with helping the veteran community," said Isaiah Frederick, 60, of Buffalo, who finished a long military career in 2010, after spending 14 years in the Air National Guard in Niagara Fall, following stints in the Army and Army Reserve. He's now studying to be a paralegal.
"It's tragic that any veteran falls through the cracks for any reason. So hopefully there will be more of a concerted effort to change that."
Others are taking a wait-and-see attitude. "He had a lot of strong points and some points that I disagreed with," said Joseph Chestnut, 66, of Buffalo, who joined the Navy in 1979, although he left soon after. "So the only thing I can do is see how Trump is going to present himself. I just want to see what he's going to bring to the table."
This is the 16th year in which staff and volunteers at the VA Western New York Healthcare System have served a hot Thanksgiving meal to veterans on the Sunday before the holiday. The goal is to help the needy and homeless, and ensure they can get at least two hot meals this holiday week.
Launched and coordinated by Judith A. Kaczmarek, an assistant human resources chief at the VA, the program relies on donations of food, clothing and other items, as well as "lots of volunteers." This year, two Girl Scout troops participated, in full uniforms, and Kaczmarek said she hopes it will inspire them into future participation in community service.
The meal is prepared by the hospital's nutrition and food service. And transportation is provided to bring veterans who are homeless or can't drive themselves, and an array of coats, socks, gloves, toothbrushes, and other personal-care items are handed out for free to those who need them. "The nice thing is we serve our veterans, because they served us," she said.
After taking her own turn serving food and talking to veterans, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul called the event "typical Buffalo."
"We come together. This is a community event," said Hochul, who has relatives who served in Vietnam and Iraq. "These are homeless veterans. This gives them a chance to walk into a warm, welcoming environment and be with other people who have a shared experience."
The veterans uniformly said they liked and appreciated the VA program. "It's wonderful. It's very nice, and everybody here appreciates it, believe me," said Scott Seabee, 64, of North Tonawanda, who served as a NATO sentinel in Kitzingen, Germany, from 1972 to 1974.
"It’s needed for the morale, for people to get out and have something to do, and for the older folks as well," said Lurando Mata, 64, of Medina, who was a diesel mechanic in the Army in 1972, struggled to get a job after he left the service, and later joined the Air Force for four years.
But they also need more than just a meal, on one or two days of the year. "I would like to see in Trump’s administration something that stays in place, where it’s not just one day where veterans are honored and they’re not forgotten or under viaducts sleeping or homeless," said Frederick's sister, Kathy, 57, who served in the active military from 1977 into the 1980s, and then in the Reserves in Niagara Falls. She later spent many years as a history teacher and is now in law school. "I would really like to see that be a mainstay."